6 Tips to Reduce Stress at Family Holiday Gatherings


How to relieve stress and maintain harmony at family holiday gatherings this year.

The holiday season is supposed to be a time to spend relaxing meals and converse with family and friends. After all, that’s what we see in movies and TV shows, isn’t it?

Not every family’s holiday dinner looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. For many, holiday dinners can mean stressful family get-togethers and controlling in-laws. How do you survive this difficult period of time? How do you handle family holiday meals with relatives who don’t like each other—or you, for that matter?

Remember, you are not alone in experiencing family-based stress over the holidays. Studies show that most people have high levels of stress during family holiday get-togethers. There are several reasons for this. First, holiday guest lists are often based on obligation rather than choice. Stress is also inevitable because families bring their historic baggage to the get-togethers. Also, when you are with your partner’s family, you want to gain their approval. Lastly, differences between family backgrounds become more apparent over the holidays, because families develop their own traditions and ways of doing things.

Here are my tips for relieving stress and maintaining harmony at family holiday gatherings this year:

  • Let others help. Have everyone bring a favorite dish to pass. That way, every family member is an essential part of the meal or party. If someone doesn’t like to cook or bake, have them bring flowers, a game to play, or the plates and napkins.
  • Respect differences. You can’t change anyone’s behavior or opinion at one get-together. Be a role model and show respect for everyone’s opinion. Taboo topics—topics that you just can’t talk about at family functions—are okay. If there is a topic that creates too much conflict for you or other family members, try to stay clear of that topic. The most common examples are politics and religion.
  • Keep your boundaries. Boundaries are okay in what you tell your family or friends at the holiday dinners. Don’t spill your guts to everyone about everything. Respect one another’s privacy. In return, set limits for what you ask others about. It is not the time to ask your adult children if they’re dating or when they’re going to have children. Don’t take it personally when others don’t want to share their concerns or issues with you.
  • Be inclusive. Everyone needs to feel special and important. Do your best to help other family members feel that way. Sometimes, compliments and noticing others diffuses stress and conflict. Notice your mother-in-law’s new dress, your brother’s new haircut, or your cousin’s new car.
  • Be sensitive to others’ needs. Be aware of who is coming to your family gatherings. Kids need games, toys and other diversions. Create spaces that allow guests to spread out and “do their thing.” For example, a cozy corner with a comfy chair and some magazines. Let guests know that they are welcome to make themselves comfortable. Also, accommodate your guests’ special dietary needs. Provide a few alternative dishes and don’t feel insulted if they can’t eat everything you’ve prepared.
  • Keep it light. Studies show that laughter and smiling changes people’s moods. Tell a funny story or a joke. Print out a list of one-liners, cut into strips, and have each dinner guest read his or hers out loud. Games and outdoor activities also reduce family tension and are always fun. But play games that don’t take much skill or prior knowledge, like charades, cards, or other noncompetitive team games.