Family stress can light up during the holiday season, causing uncomfortable dynamics, like arguments, hurt feelings, and frustration to arise. Whether it’s an intrusive aunt who serves up unsolicited criticism about your cooking or a sibling with different political views; family differences can dampen the joy of the season.

But even when we suspect longstanding family tension may percolate, it’s not uncommon to fantasize that the “magic” of the holidays will repair strained relationships.

So-called “happy” events like holidays, weddings, and anniversaries can offer hope that fractured families can be stitched back together.

Yet usually, the same conflicts arise, playing out in familiar and painful ways. For example, passive-aggressive and critical family members often make the same snarky comments they’ve uttered for decades, acting out their aggression instead of talking about their feelings. Misunderstandings between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons are often complicated and unlikely to be resolved in one evening.

While it’s common to feel sad and disappointed when confronted with this strife, you can take some active steps to set healthy boundaries, intercepting some of the drama ahead of time.

Holiday blues during Christmas

Notice Your Needs:

During the holidays, we often propel into “giving” mode, buying gifts and baking goodies for everyone on our Santa list. Due to the added busyness, we often forgo healthy habits like exercise and eating healthfully, tossing our self-care out the window. But during this hectic time, it’s wise to pay attention to our needs, making sure that they’re met in healthy ways.

It can be challenging to notice when stress piles up. However, if you’re feeling irritable, resentful, and snapping at family members unnecessarily, it might be time to take your emotional pulse.

These feelings may be a sign of burnout, signifying that you’re doing too much. Pause mindfully before committing to another party or hosting an event, and allow yourself to say “no.” To get a step ahead of the stress, set a daily intention to take twenty minutes each day to engage in a joyful activity for yourself, like yoga, reading, or taking a walk.

Research shows the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If family difficulties arise every year, they’re likely to emerge this year, too. Instead of trying to make the holidays perfect, talk with trusted friends and family members ahead of time, lining up support to help you weather any difficulties that emerge.

Holiday Blues over Christmas

Honor Your Feelings:

The holidays bring up nostalgia, and taking a trip back in time can cause expectations to pop up. Family members may assume you’re flying home to celebrate or that you’re hosting everyone for dinner at your home. Wanting to please our loved ones, we may ignore our feelings by stepping into the defense of “denial.”

While denial helps assuage painful emotions and anxiety, it’s precarious because it can cause us to act inauthentically, meaning we say “yes” when we want to say “no.”

For example, denial may cause us to fly home for the holidays, host a large family dinner, or allow the hurtful behavior to go un-checked at family gatherings. But we can avoid denial by noticing our feelings. Before saying “yes,” ask yourself, “How might it feel to fly home for the holidays?” “What’s the financial and emotional cost?” “What’s it like to bite your tongue when hurtful words come your way?”

Try to set boundaries ahead of time by using “I” statements, such as “I’d like to avoid any difficult conversations about politics at the dinner table,” or “I’d like to fly home, but it’s not doable with small kids.”

Be Mindful.

If there’s one time of year that reinforces grandiosity, it’s during the holidays. To avoid taking on too many tasks, plan in advance. Set a shopping budget, coordinate your social calendar, and discuss plans with family members.

Anticipating family stress can cause us to regress, triggering impulsive behavior, like over-spending, arguing, and drinking too much alcohol. While the holidays often reinforce indulgence, be mindful. It’s more challenging to cope with conflict and set boundaries when we’re disconnected from our emotions.

If family dysfunction becomes overwhelming, it might be helpful to seek out therapy ahead of time. Therapy is a safe space where you can explore and express your vulnerable feelings, discovering healthy ways to take care of yourself before the holiday stress takes over.

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