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Family Ties: Tips for a Stress-Reduced Holiday Season

by Andrew Roffman, LCSW


While holidays are often a time of joy and celebration, for many they can be a source of stress and anxiety. Expectations about what should happen around the holidays can collide with the reality of what actually does happen, causing disappointment, anger, and sadness. Some families can find themselves repeating difficult and even painful family dramas year after year. Family gatherings at holiday times may not fit the picture usually seen on a holiday greeting card. Fortunately, something can be done to make the holidays more enjoyable.

Be proactive, not reactive: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Old maxims often carry truth. Family members can reduce stress around the holidays by being proactive rather than reactive. This entails having a good idea of what to expect and a plan for how to deal with it.

Begin by reflecting on what has happened in the past at family gatherings. For example, have you typically gotten frustrated or angry by someone's behavior? In one family, dinner gets delayed because one member is always late. The anxiety and anticipation over that member's lateness sets the tone for the whole evening. In another family, politics gets brought up and arguments or uncomfortable silences ensue. These kinds of scenarios can have a quality of inevitability about them. Demoralizing as that may sound, such predictability allows for planning and prevention.

Knowing what typically does happen makes it possible to plan ahead. Often small alterations in both expectations and behavior can make a big difference. The next step is to talk it over with your spouse/partner and other family members. Think through what you would like to have happen for the holidays.

There are two general choices of action to consider: a) stay with the existing traditions but alter parts of them, or b) create new traditions and/or rituals.

  1. If you decide to stay with existing traditions the rule is to focus on changing your expectations and behavior in relation to the old patterns. For example, rather than hope that the tardy family member-lets call him cousin Joe-will change his ways, expect he'll be late, decide that dinner starts on time and proceed accordingly. You might tell cousin Joe ahead of time that you expect he will arrive a bit late but not to worry, he won't be disrupting things because you'll make sure there's food available for when he arrives. In this way you've predicted and planned for his lateness. If the cousin Joe arrives on time, that's great. If not, then, having expected lateness, you won't feel disappointed or angry with him and can suggest he fix a plate of food and join you.

    In the case of the political arguments, you may decide to get up from the table at that point rather than participate. Or you might abruptly change the subject, injecting a bit of humor. One strategy is to say at the start of dinner, "So, what emotionally charged political subject should we have for our holiday argument this year" In most circumstances, it then becomes very difficult for the family to keep up the old pattern. And even if they do you can always say, "Wow, what a relief, I thought we might be breaking with tradition this year!"
  2. Creating new traditions: It is easy to forget that traditions do evolve over the course of a family's history. Despite what we often expect, many family members welcome change. Creating new traditions can be an enlivening process that respects what's come before but generates new forms of celebration reflecting the needs of the present. Families who find themselves exhausted and feeling overextended can scale back the traditions they've been valiantly trying to keep alive. For example, a family may feel relieved after they decide not to have the same dinner menu each year just because it was a tradition. Gift giving as a source of stress can be dealt with by deciding beforehand on a limit and letting family members know what to expect.

Perhaps most importantly, family members should strive to clarify what matters most to them about the holidays. Not everyone has to agree on everything-usually there are sufficient areas of agreement about what's important. If compromise is not possible, the central areas of disagreement may be a clue to important issues that require attention. For example, interfaith couples may find holidays particularly stressful, not always because of their personal feelings but because of guilt, loyalty and allegiance to their original families and traditions. Issues unearthed by holiday stress may need extra and perhaps professional attention.

Here are some keys to reducing stress during the holidays:

  • Be proactive rather than reactive.
  • Have reasonable expectations and be clear about what is really important to you.
  • Be flexible and willing to change: In addition to making your life easier it is a great example to set for your children.
  • Keep your sense of humor!
Date Published: December 9, 2004
Date Reviewed: November 13, 2006