How to Deal with Family Stress Over the Holidays

Try these strategies for how to deal with family drama over the holidays.
The holidays are full of parties, family gatherings, and quality time with the people you care about. But your out-of-town relatives who are coming for Christmas may also be bringing some of their family drama along with them. Or maybe there’s enough drama in your family without the relatives bringing their own.

For example, there could be ongoing tension in your family because of your brother’s decision to not go to college next year. Or perhaps your family is always asking you when you’re going to get a “real job” or when you’re going to settle down and get married. You might have that uncle who’s extremely nosy, that cousin who always wants to talk politics, or that aunt who says things like, “That sweater makes you look slimmer than you actually are.” (What kind of compliment is that supposed to be?)

The mere anticipation of these interactions can make just thinking of the holidays stress-inducing and can rob you and your family of the joy of being together. Luckily, there are several strategies you can keep in mind to help you keep the family drama away from the dinner table so that you fully benefit from all of the good things the holidays bring.

Don’t dwell

In the days and weeks leading up to the holidays, it’s easy to solely focus on the interactions you are dreading. “Ugh, I hope Aunt Deborah doesn’t try to set me up with her friend’s son again,” you might think. Or, “My dad and my uncle argue all the time. I wonder what awful screaming match they’re going to have this year?” Whatever it is you’re dreading, focusing on the likelihood of that uncomfortable experience happening only increases your stress levels. It also crowds out any of the pleasant experiences you can look forward to during the holidays because your attention is completely focused on this one stressful experience.

So instead of spending your time dreading these interactions or experiences, try to remind yourself of what you are actually looking forward to around the holidays. For example, maybe there’s a certain tradition you look forward to all year. Perhaps there’s a cousin you love chatting with or a favorite food you can’t wait to eat. Whatever it is, try to focus on what you will enjoy during the holidays instead of what you don’t.

Take breaks

When the drama involves other family members and doesn’t include you, it can still be very uncomfortable and awkward if you are present for it. When things get tense, you want to run from the room and get out of there as fast as you can.

In order to avoid the stress from hearing your dad and uncle arguing yet again, it can be helpful to take breaks from your family. For example, if the thought of spending an entire day in the midst of family drama sends you into panic mode, it can help to know that you have breathers planned throughout the day. Offering to help in the kitchen, for example, can be an easy way to give yourself a breather. Chopping veggies and setting the table can serve as a welcome break from the arguing happening in the other room.

Plan ahead

When you come prepared with your response to those inevitable questions that you get from your relatives, it’s much less stressful because you won’t feel like you’re caught unaware when your grandma asks you about your love life. Have an explanation that you feel comfortable with at the ready and then you won’t dread your conversation with grandma as much. Or if your relative is just plain rude to you and there’s no way to respond politely, changing the subject or simply ending the conversation are always options.

Remember, for the most part, you can’t control how other people treat you or speak to you but you can decide how you’re going to respond. If someone is just being plain rude, you don’t have to engage in conversation with them any longer than necessary. Simply excuse yourself and exit the conversation. (Needing a refill or a restroom break are always great escape options.)

Limit your interactions

And finally, it’s totally okay to limit the amount of time you spend around stressful family members. Instead of feeling trapped in the drama, try to spend as much time as you can with those relatives you truly enjoy. They are the ones who make the holidays enjoyable, so spend some quality time with them! You’re more likely to have positive conversations and you’ll feel at ease. Plus, connecting with these family members will help offset any stress from the family drama that may have affected you.

Every family goes through drama from time to time, but that doesn’t mean the drama has to ruin the holidays for you. Coming prepared and with a plan for how you are going to handle the holiday can go a long way in minimizing stress and for freeing you to enjoy these sacred times with your family.

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