A Holiday Recipe for Less Family Drama

Medically reviewed in April 2021

What comes to mind when you think of family holiday gatherings? I think of festive décor , gathering around the dinner table for fun conversation and of course, enjoying delicious food. But whatever your holiday traditions, it’s likely that your family gatherings will be sprinkled with a few tense moments and misunderstandings.

As the second of nine children married to a man with five siblings, I know a thing or two about family drama during the holidays.

Though my own personal experience, coupled with professional experience working with families for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned a few helpful strategies for navigating those occasional stressful situations that come whenever families gather.

Accept that everyone will not be happy
While ideal holiday celebrations are associated with happiness, remember that it’s not your job to make everyone happy. I once worked with a couple that traditionally had several family members stay at their home for a week during Christmastime. Having just having had a new baby, this couple was not feeling up to having houseguests, yet they were hesitant to take a stand for fear of hurting family members’ feelings. They felt relieved at the thought that they were “allowed” to take a break from hosting family members, and that it was okay if their family was disappointed that they had to stay at a hotel this year. I reminded them of one of my favorite sayings, “No one ever died from disappointment.”

Start a different tradition
One of the beauties of being an adult is that you get to choose what you want to do. Just because your family has always spent New Year’s Eve at aunt Josie’s house doesn’t mean that it always has to be that way. As families evolve, traditions can change with them. Family traditions are meant to promote family bonding, not family “bondage.” If you are feeling like you don’t have a choice in how you celebrate the holidays, it may be time to start a tradition of your own.

Act like a grownup, even when you don’t feel like one
Have you ever noticed how family gatherings have a tendency to bring out old patterns and roles? A 50-year-old man can magically transform back into that older teenage brother who used to tease you mercilessly. Or that little sister can shift from a respected adult into a spoiled little girl. If old family patterns resurface, leaving you feeling like (or acting like) a child, remind yourself that you can chose not to revert back to playing your childhood role.

Look out for your own
One of the trickiest parts of navigating holidays is deciding which events to attend when scheduling conflicts arise. I find it helpful to think of family expectations in terms of concentric circles. In the center are your own preferences; the next ring is your partner’s expectations, then your children’s, and finally, your extended family’s. Relationships that are under your direct care need to be considered with more weight than the expectations of your family of origin or extended family.

Assume that others have good intentions
Even if you are well prepared to handle family drama, it may sneak up on you without warning. An offhand comment about your parenting skills (or lack thereof) or a sister-in-law forgetting to buy a gift for your family may catch you off guard. To fend off potential drama, I’ve found it helpful to make up a story in my mind that makes another person’s potentially hurtful behavior make sense. Thinking, “Oh, I know she’s had a difficult time caring for a sick mom” helps me to not take offense and get sucked into family drama. Assuming others’ missteps are underscored by good intentions will help you have a happier holiday.

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