The most wonderful time of the year can feel, well, overwhelming for a lot of families. Holiday stress can be especially acute when a family has experienced big changes. Even positive shifts, such as sobriety or getting treatment for mental health, can make a family rethink their seasonal traditions, expectations and motivations.

“Families are ‘systems,’ and when change occurs within that system or outside of it, the balance/equilibrium is upset,” explains Mary Foston-English, MFT, in an article from Stanford’s BeWell program. “Keeping that balance is complicated because change is inevitable; people do change and grow in spite of the pressure to conform and keep the balance.”

If you are feeling the ground shifting under your snow boots, here are some things you can do to bring some balance to your family’s holidays.

Reflect. Individually and as a family, think through your holiday game-plan. Are there events, traditions or situations that you’re already dreading? Why? Question the “have tos,” “shoulds,” and any worst-case assumptions about the fall-out from skipping a holiday obligation altogether. Maybe the annual cross-country drive to a family gathering leaves everyone exhausted and grouchy. Do you have to go? Perhaps extravagant gift-giving is putting a strain on family finances. Are there other ways to show generosity?  Brainstorm alternatives, compromises and new ways to celebrate.

Prioritize. What is most important to you? To the other members of your family? This is your seasonal must-do list. Work together to put those activities, needs and traditions first. Everything else is optional. Unburden yourself—and your calendar—from the pressure to do it all. If it is not on your must-do list, find a way to participate in a low-stress way (drop in to that work party for an hour, not the whole night, for example, or stay with relatives for a few days instead of an entire week). Or you can always say no! You are allowed to set boundaries to protect your family’s holiday downtime.

Flex. Surprises are part of the season. Expect the unexpected and be ready to change things up if your game-plan does not go accordingly. Knowing your priorities and not over-committing will build in extra buffer time. That way you won’t be sidelined by kitchen emergencies, unexpected guests or extra hours needed for emotional processing.

Feel. A big part of holiday stress comes from the gap between the emotions we think we should be experiencing and what we are actually feeling. Allow yourself and your family members to be present to whatever emotions arise without expectations or shame. When we are able to hold space for negative emotions, like sadness, boredom or anger, we increase our capacity to feel the positive ones, like happiness, cheer and even joy.

Care. Before the holidays hit, have each family member make a short list of actions they will take to keep themselves centered during the season. From taking a long bath to reading a favorite book, these self-care practices will likely be different for everyone. When there is overlap, you can make them part of your holiday schedule. (Maybe everyone in your family finds holiday movies soothing or likes to relax with a long walk, for example.) Give each other the freedom to take self-care time-outs as often as necessary.

Take these simple steps to limit your family’s seasonal stress, and you can create opportunities for real rest and connection together during the hectic holidays.



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“Surviving the Family Holiday,” by Julie Croteau. Standford BeWell News. Accessed November 9, 2018.

“10 Tips for Surviving the Holidays,” by Linda Walter. December 6, 2012.

“Managing Family Holiday Stress,” by Dinah Torres Castro. Cornell University CCE Suffolk County Family Health and Wellness Blog. December 15, 2016.

“Tips for parents on managing holiday stress,” American Psychological Association Psychology Help Center. Updated November 2016.

“Home for the Holidays,” by R. Morgan Griffin. WebMD. Accessed November 9, 2018.