How to manage family stress over the holidays

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

By: ​Kimberly Crossman, RSSW

It’s a long weekend in Canada – whether you are celebrating the harvest, the Thanksgiving table, or as one blended Cree/Ojibway/Mohawk/European-descended family calls it, the “You’re Welcome Weekend.”  Are you ready for your extended family gatherings?

As many of us are fortunate enough to experience, any of the holidays can be a time for togetherness, a practice of gratitude, and comfort. However, it can also be a time for uncomfortable feelings, what some might call ‘drama’, unexpected conflict and intense emotions. Some of us may find ourselves in uncomfortable situations, fueled by differing beliefs as we get older, a lack of all different sorts of boundaries, or continued unhealthy patterns of behaviour we’ve been trying to straighten out in our own lives.

Although we can’t control or change how our relatives act, we can work on managing ourselves.

​A big part of that includes some advance reflection and thought about how we want to experience the weekend, and figuring out how to stay mindful of our own thoughts and behaviours. Or said, another way, how to set ourselves up for success (which looks different for everyone, based on your own individual or family values and relationships).
While we are providing some common grounding principles here in this article, it’s important to remember, these tips are meant to be filtered through the lens of your personal, cultural, and family values, so that they have meaningful value in your life. It can be hard to feel confidant, or validated doing this alone, so grab a best friend, or another trusted loved one to talk through some of these ideas in advance. If you don’t have one of those people in your life readily available, many people attend therapy to better cope with difficult family relationships (now is the time!).

4 tips for family gatherings

1. Set healthy boundaries.

“Boundaries” can be misunderstood.

Boundaries are the limits that we set in relationships to feel comfortable.  Healthy boundaries can also be understood as a way to invite others in, rather than keep people out.  Our expressed boundaries let other people how to treat us if they want a continued relationship at the same level of openness with us. 

​You can also think of them as a “do not cross” caution tape.

Sometimes it is helpful to decide what your boundaries are before going into the holidays.  For example, it might feel frustrating if you have a family member who asks personal questions about things you prefer privacy around (which is absolutely your choice to make), especially if you have asked them to stay away from those subjects in the past.  You can decide in advance how you might handle it differently this time;  do you want to engage in the conversation, or remind them it makes you uncomfortable?

Sometimes family members might misinterpret your want for privacy with secrecy.  And there is a really big difference between privacy and ‘secrecy’ in relationships; rather than really wanting to know all the nitty-gritty details of your private life, they might really just be asking, “how do I stay connected to you? Am I still relevant to you? Do I still matter?
Tip:  Consider what you might share with them in advance , that aligns with your values and allows you to stay connected within that relationship, while safeguarding the things that you would like to keep private.

2. Manage your expectations. 

Having expectations of how we think family members “should” act often leads to feelings of resentment or disappointment. Attempts to change other people’s behaviour can lead to defensiveness or conflict, (which is only human on both sides).
Once you have set your boundaries and decided on how you might go about talk about them – this does not mean everyone will respect them.What will it look like for you if your boundaries aren’t respected? What might you hear others say? What can you say? How will you notice or feel physically if the boundary is crossed?Are there any (natural) consequences?  
Tip: Take some time before family gatherings to think about how you might manage your emotions (step outside, or into a bathroom for a breather?) if things don’t go your way.

3. Create a realistic plan.

If you sense that things are becoming too much to handle (you can’t reasonably predict how it might go), then definitely consider creating a plan ahead of time.  This could look like excusing yourself and taking some personal space, to do some regulating, deep breathing, planning a shorter visit, having a friend who might be expecting your call, or limiting alcohol intake if drinking. Have an “exit” plan – for example, staying for dinner but not for the “party” or evening.
Tip: Having an ally in the room, who will notice what it looks like when you feel uncomfortable, or who might step in to either advocate for you, or re-direct a conversation, can be a wonderful practice to enhance your sense of emotional safety and balance. Who can you ask to do that for you?

4. Practice self care and self compassion.

It is hard to approach every situation “perfectly” or “right.”  Sometimes we may say things we are not proud of if a family member makes a judgmental comment to us, or if someone is drinking too much and we feel uncomfortable or worried.  This may be a hard environment to be in, for others as well.  It can be helpful to ask yourself “what would I tell a friend in this situation?”
Tip: Practice self-compassion – which simply means being kind and gentle with yourself, moment by moment, and include in your weekend plans, something gentle or fun for yourself as a way to decompress, after the gatherings are over.

The bottom line

We won’t be able to “fix” our entire family dynamic over the holidays – however we can begin to noticeour own reactions to these stressors (do you notice as it builds just beneath the surface, closer to the event?). Once we at least notice, then we can start to make a plan to manage difficult emotions, by practicing pacing (maybe one hour at a time), being non-judgmental with ourselves (and others), and managing our expectations – both of ourselves, and our expectations of others.

The more you can customize the relational skills above, the easier it will be to accepting what you cannot control, while still having compassion, for both yourself, and your family members.  Over time, proactively protecting our ability to come back to a peaceful place within ourselves, and honouring our own values, do make the holidays a “better” time of year.
If you would like to talk through any of these concepts, learn about your family history and about changing generational relational patterns, book a free consult call to get started today. 


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Picture of Kimberly Crossman, RSSW

Kimberly Crossman, RSSW

Psychotherapist, Registered Social Service Worker (RSSW) Canadian Certified Addictions Counsellor (CCAC)​​ Kim works with adults (18+) in Ontario, and has specialized training and interest in co-dependency and healthy boundary setting, anger management, anxiety, self-esteem building, traumatic abuse recovery, emotional regulation skill building and conflict management.

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