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How to Have Stress-Free Celebrations with Family Over the Holidays

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The holiday season is a great opportunity to take a break and spend time with family. But it can also cause a lot of stress. Whether it’s the pressure of planning and hosting a family dinner or the anxiety of facing questions from extended family, this seemingly jolly time of year isn’t always so simple.

To ensure a stress-free holiday, it can be helpful to take time to plan for and manage your stress. With the pandemic still looming over gatherings, setting boundaries and ensuring everyone’s on the same page can help everything run smoothly. If there are members of your family who are unvaccinated — or if you’re uncomfortable with travel — you’ll need to develop a game plan for telling your family you won’t be coming home for the holidays. To help you learn how to do exactly that, we’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks from Diana Wildermuth, faculty coordinator of the Counseling Psychology program at Temple University. 

Establish open communication

If you make the decision not to travel home for the holidays due to concerns around COVID-19, it’s important to be upfront with your choice. When you have that tough conversation, lead with your decision and then explain your feelings. If you don’t want to be around unvaccinated family members, or if you’re unsure about traveling on a plane, make that clear in advance. 

You should also anticipate your family members’ reactions. It’s possible there might be some hurt feelings — make sure to have room for empathy while remaining firm in explaining yourself. And just because you won’t be there in person doesn’t mean that you can participate. Try suggesting a Zoom or FaceTime call during family traditions so that you can still be a part of the festivities. 

Choose a supportive approach

If you do decide to make the trip home, it’s important to maintain a level of patience during your visit. As frustrating as family can be, and as much as we might think we know about their lives, it’s important to remain empathetic when dealing with conflict or sensitive topics. “We never know what another person’s experience is like and what they’re going through,” Wildermuth says. 

Rather than getting upset at a moody teenager or a short-fused aunt, starting from a place of empathy can help diffuse the problem before it becomes a full-blown conflict. 

Even a well-intentioned question — like asking a teenager about their future plans — can feel like a lot of pressure if they don’t know the answer. “Instead of asking, ‘What college are you going to?’, the better question is, ‘What are you thinking about doing for your future?’” Wildermuth explains.

Learn from the past

Being empathetic also means understanding that there’s no fix-all — every relationship will require something different. Wildermuth always starts by asking people: “What has worked in the past?” This starts the conversation from a positive perspective, and helps you avoid comparing one relationship to another. 

For example, if you know that your parents respond well when they hear compliments before criticism, or that your cousin prefers clear directions rather than sugar-coated suggestions, try to meet them where they’re at.

Learning from the past can also mean predicting future conflicts. If you know there’s one family member who tends to over consume alcohol, plan ahead to limit how much you keep near the table, or create a plan for how to mitigate the situation in the event they have too much to drink. Overall, the goal is to create a solution to the problem before it ever happens.

Manage expectations

A big part of what makes holidays stressful is when our expectations don’t align with reality. Having a completely stress-free holiday is unlikely for most families, so it makes sense to plan for how to handle the inevitable stress.

Expectations can also become a problem when family members have different ideas of what’s appropriate. If older kids are returning from college for winter break, create a schedule for how they’ll share the car with other siblings. You can also establish a curfew to create ground rules around communication and when they’re expected back home. They probably have gotten used to the freedom of dorm life, so you’ll need to remind them of what’s appropriate when they’re back under your roof.  

Take time to yourself

Often, the best way to cope with stress is some alone time. Unfortunately, finding ‘me time’ can be especially difficult when you’re staying in someone else’s home, or when there are expectations around interacting with family. There might not be a room you can slip away to and avoid the rest of the family, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get a few minutes alone. 

Consider taking a short walk — those ten minutes will feel like a reset button for your emotions. But if that’s not possible, Wildermuth has a last resort option: “Go sit in the bathroom for five minutes and just breathe.” 

When there’s a million things happening around you, sometimes a few minutes can be enough to recenter yourself. Taking a deep breath and pausing before responding during a conflict can help you reach a satisfying resolution and ensure it doesn’t escalate any further.