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7 tips for dealing with family drama at the holidays

Friday, December 08, 2023 9:00 AM

By Endeavor Health

Families. You gotta love ‘em. During the holiday season, you probably get your fair share of family time. But getting your whole family together under one roof can be a recipe for drama.

You can’t choose your family like you choose your friends. Little quirks that you may overlook among friends can feel much bigger and more irritating when you’re with family. Different worldviews, competition and annoying habits can put family members at odds. With years of history together, some of us also have old wounds that haven’t healed.

“The holidays can be a time of togetherness, tradition and excitement, but with that comes a lot of stress and pressure we place on ourselves. As a result, most of us experience mixed emotions during the holiday season,” said Dylan Panuska, PsyD, CADC, clinical psychologist with Endeavor Health.

Holiday family

Also, do you ever notice that when you’re with your family, you revert back to childhood roles? “We have a tendency to fall into old childhood patterns and family dynamics,” Panuska added. These factors, combined with the pressures of trying to have a joyful holiday together, can stir up quite a bit drama.

It may be tempting to skip the holidays this year and stay home. It’s ok to say no to holiday get-togethers, if needed. But if you decide to take part, here are seven tips to help it go smoother:

  1. Don’t expect an “ideal” holiday. “Being realistic will make it easier for you to be present and take in more of the good moments,” Panuska said. Also, your mindset can help determine how it goes for you. Don’t walk in the door thinking about past problems or hurts. Try to go in with a fresh outlook.
  2. Have a game plan. Of course, you hope everyone will behave, but they may not. Have a plan for how you’ll respond so you won’t have to react in the moment. “Visualization can work well for these situations. Visualize yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Really try to place yourself in the moment. What you might think, feel and what your body would feel like, and then play the story out where you successfully navigate the interaction and go back to enjoying the rest of your get together,” Panuska said.
  3. Stay calm and excuse yourself if needed. Fighting back can feel good for a moment, but it usually ends up draining you. If a relative says something that upsets you, don’t react or get defensive. It can be more empowering to stay calm and turn your attention elsewhere. When the conversation gets uncomfortable, try to tactfully change the subject. If you need to, go for a 10-minute walk or excuse yourself to another room and take deep breaths. Practice positive mantras to re-center yourself.
  4. Set boundaries. Are there certain relatives you simply can't tolerate and need to steer clear of? How much time with your family is too much? Think it through before you go. Know when you would like to leave, and have your own way home so you don’t have to rely on a relative.
  5. Have an ally. “Asking for support and connecting with people who care about you is incredibly important all of the time, including the holidays,” Panuska said. Consider bringing a trusted friend to your gathering. If that’s not possible, have someone on standby that you can text or call.
  6. Keep it simple. This isn’t the time to resolve past arguments or deep-seated family issues. Stay away from serious topics (try not to get into politics!). It doesn’t need to be a huge bonding experience either. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
  7. Schedule post-holiday self-care. Think about what you will do after the holidays. Maybe you’ll have plenty of alone time, or connect with friends. Get some me-time on the calendar. It will give you something to look forward to.

Although you may be dreading a houseful of relatives this holiday, you can handle it! Focus on the good things and find reasons to be grateful. Are you happy that you don’t have to cook this year? At least you have a family to spend the holidays with — some don’t.

All families are challenging. There’s no way around it. But we can try to accept family members for who they are and focus on the good qualities each one brings to the family.

If you find stress or anxiety to be unmanageable — if it interferes with your work, relationships or ability to take care of yourself — it may be time to seek additional support. Your primary care physician is a great place to start. You can also call 630-305-5027 for the 24/7 Help Line at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

Learn more about behavioral health services at Endeavor Health.

NorthShore University HealthSystem, Swedish Hospital, Northwest Community Healthcare and Edward-Elmhurst Health are now united under one name, Endeavor Health. We’re setting a new standard for healthcare that’s focused on you, because your best health is our endeavor. Learn more.