The holiday season is often filled with fun and family, but it can also be stressful. A 2018 survey found that an overwhelming majority (88%) of those surveyed feel stressed when celebrating the holidays.

Family dynamics play a major factor in how much you and your loved ones may enjoy the holidays. Here are 10 ways to manage family-related stress and help you experience more joy with your family.

#1 Talk in advance to set expectations around gift-giving.

When spending on holiday gifts is uneven or gifts are unexpected, it can lead to awkward and even unhappy moments with family. Have a brief conversation up front to set the ground rules and agree on a spending range. For many families, drawing names and giving to just one person offers a way to reduce financial strain while others choose experiences they can do together, like seeing a local theater show, and eliminate gifts altogether.

Conversation starter: “We thought it would be helpful to make a plan for gifts this year, as we need to stick to a budget. Can we agree on a spending limit?” 

#2 Be selective with activities and protect your time to do what matters most to you.

There are so many activities and events this time of year. To keep from running yourself ragged going from commitment to commitment, be selective when deciding what to attend. Are you attending out of obligation or genuine excitement?

Tip: If you are not ready to eliminate a commitment altogether, try alternating. Maybe you host that holiday party every other year or send holiday cards to half your list one year and half the next.

#3 Create a game plan for stressful moments and how you will respond.

You can predict some of the stressful moments you’ll face. Maybe it’s when your aunt asks if you are ever going to get married or that last 30 minutes before you put the holiday meal on the table. Imagine that moment and determine how you will handle it in advance.

Tip: Having a plan can help reduce anxiety! Practice with a friend what you’ll say or do in that stressful moment. 

#4 Be aware of the tendency to revert to old patterns of behavior.

Do your older brothers still tease you like they did when you were 10? Does your family tend to overeat or drink excessively when they get together? Being mindful of these patterns can help you stay calmer and diffuse the tension when these situations arise. You might even get the chance to stop behaviors they begin.

#5 Set and enforce boundaries with family members who display toxic behaviors.

When family members display toxic behaviors (e.g, verbal abuse, emotional manipulation, narcissism), it can ruin your holiday experience and affect your mental health. Set boundaries where you can and limit the time you spend with them to shorter, more manageable doses.

Sample Script: “We’ve decided to keep our New Year’s Eve quieter this year, just us and the kids at home. We do look forward to seeing you at Aunt Maria’s on New Year’s Day.”

#6 Give yourself time to remember and grieve departed loved ones.

The holidays can bring up memories and emotions about the loved ones we’ve lost. Recognize when those feelings come up and give yourself the space to feel them. Share a song or story with others to carry forward happy memories of your loved one.

#7 Practice gratitude for the people in your life and all you have.

Research shows simply writing down a few things you are grateful for once a week can make you feel more optimistic and happy. It’s also helpful to focus on the positives about your family members at those moments when you feel stressed by them.

#8 Prioritize sleep, hydration, and outdoor time to replenish your body.

It’s challenging to take care of yourself during the busy holiday season, but it can make a huge difference in how you handle stress. Even a few moments outside can calm your brain. To stay hydrated, try keeping a water bottle on your bedside table each night so you remember to drink first thing in the morning.

#9 Disconnect from screens and reconnect with the people in front of you.

People rely on devices to separate from stressful people and situations and avoid discomfort. Make a concerted effort to put away devices and have real conversations, especially at the dinner table.

#10 Identify a “lifeline” to call or talk with when you start to feel stressed.

Having a trusted friend on call to let you release the pressure before it builds up can be very helpful.

Finally, be mindful of your mental health. If you think you need more support or just someone to talk with, dial “211” from any location to be connected with confidential, free-of-charge guidance on how and where to find professional help.


Additional Resources

  • Looking for ways to help a teen in your life manage stress? We have more stress management tips for you and your teen right here!
  • If you want more actionable ways to manage stress, depression, or bipolar disorder, we have many free webinars available. Register today and watch the webinars on demand when it’s convenient for you.
  • Still feeling stressed about the holidays? Harvard Health Blog shares 7 more ways to prevent holiday stress.