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How to Deal With Family Stress During the Holidays, According to Therapists

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I’m going to assume that whoever first said the holidays are the “most wonderful time of the year” didn’t grow up with deeply difficult family dynamics. As a psychotherapist who specializes in helping folks struggling with issues pertaining to cultural and intergenerational conflicts, many of my clients’ feelings about the holidays are far from wonderful.  

During the final months of the year, most of us are inundated with images of happy families celebrating together all over our screens. For many of my clients and myself, these picture-perfect Instagram posts, ads, and holiday movies can be a painful reminder of what we don’t have, which can trigger feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression. But the truth is, there are far more people dealing with tough family stuff than meets the eye. We just don’t post about our struggles on social media. 

That’s why, this year, I asked 11 fellow therapists from diverse backgrounds to share how they cope with strained family relationships during the holidays—so those of us dealing with similar issues can feel more supported (and less alone) this year.

1. Ask yourself why you’re going home for the holidays.

“If you feel conflicted about staying with or visiting your family during the holidays, it’s important to consider: What is your purpose for returning home in the first place? Are you going simply because you’re expected to? Or because you’ll feel guilty if you don’t? Are you genuinely excited about reconnecting with some family members and creating new memories? Make sure you understand what your reasons are for returning home and whether those reasons are serving you and/or bringing you joy. If visiting your family comes at the expense of your mental health, the cost may be too high. Once your reasons are clear, it’s often easier to make a decision that prioritizes your well-being—and you’re less likely to feel guilty if you decide to skip certain trips or gatherings to protect your peace.” —Beverly Ibeh, PsyD, a psychologist at Thrive Psychology Group

2. Lower your expectations and take breaks when you need to.

“It’s important to have a realistic outlook and know that things could potentially go wrong with your family. You can hope that they don’t, of course, but starting out with an accepting attitude (There are some difficult dynamics here, so I’m just going to take this one moment at a time) can prevent you from getting your hopes up and, as a result, soften the blow if things go sideways. Something else I do is escape difficult moments by stepping away and practicing some mindfulness. The air is crisp in much of the country this time of year and nature is beautiful and restorative. Stepping out on the back porch and taking a few breaths, for example, or heading out on a walk break before you go back to interact with family (or before your gathering starts) can give you some perspective and help get you in a calmer headspace.” —James Harris, LMHP, founder of Men To Heal

3. Establish boundaries with your family ahead of time.

“Rather than bearing the responsibility of navigating tricky family dynamics on my own, I share it with family members weeks before the holidays. For example, I communicate my off-limit topics with my loved ones ahead of time and ask for their participation to respect my boundaries. If I know there are certain patterns that tend to play out this time of year, I seek clarity on how folks would like to navigate these situations to avoid conflict. I believe that we are mutually responsible for and capable of co-creating a family space that’s respectful and enjoyable. I also take time to listen to my family members’ desires and ask them to share ways that I can support them, too.” —Melody Li, LMFT, founder of Inclusive Therapists 

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4. Remind yourself that it’s okay to say “no.”

“For many of us who grew up in an Asian American household, saying ‘no’ to elders is like adding oil to water. And in general, the act of setting boundaries with loved ones can be tough for a variety of reasons. It sounds simple but reminding yourself that people will survive if you, for example, politely turn down physical gestures that may make you feel uncomfortable such as hugs and kisses, or calmly decline to engage in certain conversations at the dinner table, can help you get more comfortable drawing these lines. As can remembering that you’re not responsible for how others react when you set a boundary; you are only responsible for your delivery.” —Brandon A. Shindo, LCSW, Co-Founder of K & B Therapy, Inc.

5. Set limits with family members who share different religious views.

“Holidays can be especially tricky if your family is made up of people with religious views and practices that are different from your own. Perhaps entering a church building is too activating for you, or maybe you struggle with family downtime, when the unsolicited advice starts to flow. Setting a limit in these cases might look like saying, ‘Thank you for the invite to Hanukkah dinner! I can be there at 5 but I’ll need to be on the road by 7.’ Or perhaps, ‘I appreciate the invitation to the Christmas Eve service but this year I’ll join you afterward at the house.’ Even though your family might be upset that you’re setting these limits, it’s important to remember that your job is to establish your boundaries—not to manage how others feel about them.” —Natalie Kember, LMSW, a Michigan-based social worker

6. Learn how to detach when necessary.

“Regardless of the holiday, whether it’s Diwali or Christmas, I have frequently noticed in myself and my clients some form of either intergenerational conflict or family enmeshment that requires detachment to find peace. When I’m feeling overwhelmed in these types of situations, I’ve learned to gracefully extricate myself and engage in grounding exercises. This time away affords me the opportunity to center myself and be more patient and less judgmental within familial dynamics.” —Pavna K. Sodhi, EdD, psychotherapist and counseling professor at the University of Ottowa

7. Just don’t go.

“A coping strategy I’ve used and recommended to my clients is to simply not show up to holiday gatherings that you’re dreading. Just do not go! My new favorite way to do this is by taking a vacation during the holidays. If you’re not in town, there’s no expectation for you to attend. A change of scenery can also be helpful in boosting your mood and feelings about the season (and in general). If a full-on trip doesn’t work for you, you can also make fun day plans. Think about who it is that you would prefer to spend that time with. Is it a partner, friends, or even yourself? Once you know, plan a trip or outing so you have something to look forward to. —Joi Britt, LCSW, owner of Life Intentionally Psychotherapy

8. Create your own traditions and rituals.

“In my childhood family, we rarely decorated or offered presents. The holidays were barely a blip in the calendar. My immigrant parents were too exhausted and financially restricted to decorate our house or buy an abundance of gifts. Now, with a family of my own, my partner and I are deliberate about starting our own holiday traditions. By creating these rituals, I can grieve the lack of celebration I experienced as a child but also work toward creating the joy and excitement that I missed out on now. The holidays have become my kids’ favorite time of year and this process has been reparative for me, too.” —Jenny Wang, PhD, psychologist, author, and founder of Asians For Mental Health

9. Make a safe space for yourself.

“Growing up as an only child raised by a single mother who immigrated from El Salvador in the 1970s, the holiday season has typically been challenging to navigate, as I always felt sad that my family relationships didn’t look the same as my peers in school or like those of my mother’s extended family. My gentle reminder to anyone trying to navigate the complexities of difficult family dynamics during the holidays is that you deserve to be in a safe space and it’s okay to protect your emotional well-being by creating your own traditions and setting boundaries. Just because you’re related to someone doesn’t always mean they have the best intentions for you. Sometimes you have to distance yourself from people who aren’t good for your mental health, and just because someone is part of your family, that doesn’t mean they have to be a part of your life path. You are capable and deserving of creating holiday traditions and dynamics that bring you joy and peace.” —Carla Avalos, LCSW, owner of Nuevos Caminos Therapy

10. Host family get-togethers on your turf.

“Sometimes people are in a situation where they want approval from their family, whether it’s regarding their gender expression or sexuality, their religious beliefs, or even where they live. Rather than continually seeking approval from parents who haven’t budged, my suggestion is to focus on building a life you love and are proud of, and then invite your family into that if you want to, with whatever boundaries you need. You don’t need to tolerate abuse or disrespect from anyone—family included. However, it’s easier to set those limits when it’s on your turf, so to speak. Try hosting dinner in your own home, for example, so that you can set the rules and pace for how you want the evening to look. That way, you’re letting them into your life, rather than punishing yourself by waiting for them to come around.” —Sara Stanizai, LMFT, owner of Prospect Therapy

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11. Spend time with your chosen family.

“Over the past several years, I’ve been (re)creating traditions around the holiday season that are more in alignment with my own values and beliefs. Coming from an immigrant family, this was frequently met with confusion, judgment, and resistance. Sometimes, these critiques and remarks would lead me down a thought spiral of self-doubt and guilt.  What’s helped me quiet those inner voices is turning to my community. Existing with loved ones who honor and affirm my choices reminds me that I’m not alone and that my choices are neither bad nor wrong. This can serve as a powerful reality check of your truth (when your mind is trying to convince you otherwise). I recommend setting an intention to spend time with those who see you, honor you, and affirm you—all of you—this holiday season.” —Ivonne M. Mejía, PsyD, psychologist and owner of Pachamama Therapy Collective

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Source: Self

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