It’s a Family Affair: 7 Ideas for Coping at Stressful Holiday Gatherings

Family Holiday

For some, holidays do not feel like a celebration. In the company of family, we are sometimes faced with old patterns of relating that we try all year to stay away from. We may become the peacemaker, the planner, the complainer, the helper, the entertainer, and the list goes on.

Each family dynamic is different and so the methods of coping and transforming the experience are different too. I recommend talking with a therapist to explore the unique conditions of being around your family and to discover more specific ways you can learn to interact differently.

In the meantime, there may be a family event to attend before you are ready to try out new methods of communicating your feelings and addressing your family relationships. Sometimes the goal of holiday gatherings may be about coping and managing with the least amount of emotional upset possible. Here are a few possibilities for approaching a family event with this mindset.

  1. Avoid taking responsibility. Those urges are planted deep, but what if you did not take responsibility for everyone’s feelings around you? What if you let someone frown, let the conversation die, let someone argue, let someone leave? What would happen if you didn’t jump in to try to solve or manage the situation?
  2. Focus on managing your own feelings. Take breaks from the crowd and recenter. Maybe go for a walk. Be mindful of your breath and remind yourself to breathe slower and deeper.
  3. Observe instead of participating. Step back and notice the patterns among your family members as an observer. Pretend you are an outsider to this family meeting them for the first time. See if you can just notice without reacting. There may be some new discoveries and awareness, and it will reduce your engagement and upset.
  4. Pay attention to mood regulators. Be mindful of what you are eating, how much you are drinking, how you are sleeping, and how your body is moving. Too little eating, sleeping or moving can alter our mood and might increase irritability. Too much drinking can alter our judgment and increase our chances of engaging in family conflict.
  5. Keep in contact with your inner adult. Sometimes we are suddenly 8 years old again as soon as we our mingling with family. Ask yourself what the adult you would do right now to gently shift your thinking. It may help to keep in contact with your usual support system to assist you in this reminder. Make a quick phone call or text message to help you connect with someone who knows you and can offer support.
  6. Redirect focus. It is a short time period during the holidays even though it may seem like each second is an hour. The family may need a focus rather than on each other. Puzzles, frisbee, music, working on the car, cooking and cleaning, watching sports on tv, or playing with the kids are all ideas for distractions. In a healthy family, holidays are a bonding time to be present and enjoy each other. In a family where focusing on each other leads to repetition of undesired and triggering patterns, a new focus might help bring fresh energy and distract from conflict.
  7. Find the positive. As much as the negative thoughts and complaints might be demanding your attention, look for the positive. Did someone just say thank you? Did someone smile? What do you like about the situation? Others might appreciate you vocalizing what you notice to help them focus on the positive too.

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