Expert advice on handling family challenges around the holidays

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It's that time of year when families come together to celebrate — or argue — over the holiday dinner table.

Experts say it's normal for this season to bring unique challenges with loved ones, but there are ways to cope with these stresses and make it through.

"While the holidays are often marketed as a very happy time to gather with family, this is not always the case," says Leanna Stockard, a licensed marriage and family therapist with mental health care company LifeStance Health. "There are multiple challenges that families can face, and these challenges may be amplified around the holiday season where there is pressure to be 'happy.'"

To help you handle what may arise during your family gatherings this season, we asked therapists about the most common issues they see and how to navigate them.

Unmet expectations

Whitney Goodman, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of online support platform Calling Home, says one of the biggest issues she sees around the holidays revolves around expectations.

"Wanting the holiday season to be perfect or to be different than it normally is with their family — that's only natural given all the pressure and messaging that we have around the holidays," she says.

How to navigate: Goodman recommends having an honest conversation with yourself and the people around you.

"Just saying, 'I'm going to expect my family members to behave the way that they always do. I'm not going to expect them to be different this week, just because it's the holidays.' And when I accept that I can prepare accurately for what's going to happen," she explains. "When people are able to get those expectations out of the way, it leads to a lot less disappointment and you can really control the outcome a lot better."

Stressful logistics

Trying to make everyone happy and managing complicated schedules can be really difficult for people, especially when talking about blended or large, extended families.

"There's a lot of running around... (and this) can take the fun out the holiday season when it's so stressful," Goodman says.

How to navigate: Doing a bit of mental preparation can be helpful in staying calm.

"There are going to be things that are always out of our control that we can't prepare for, but when you are a little bit more expectant of what's to come it makes it easier," Goodman says.

Rusty relationships

Interactions with extended or estranged family members around the holidays can also cause stress.

"For many people, it's the one time a year that they see these family members," says Alyssa Mairanz, owner and executive director of Empower Your Mind Therapy.

How to navigate: Don't be afraid to take the space you need, Mairanz says, adding that you can also focus on other people.

"Put your energy towards engaging with those who are not as estranged or stress you out as much," she suggests.

Before entering these situations, remember it's likely not the time to rehash old (or even current) problems. Instead, prepare to "just be cordial," Mairanz advises.

"Just because it's holiday time and family's around, it doesn't mean that you have any obligations towards reconciling things that you're not ready to reconcile," she says.

Uncomfortable questions

Family members who are relentless in inquiring about our love lives, careers or life decisions can bring additional discomfort to the holidays.

"This can especially be the case if any family members disagree about certain directions their loved ones have taken and have no problem with sharing that perspective with them," Stockard says.

How to navigate: Boundaries can play a key role here, Stockard says.

"Boundaries can be physical, emotional (or) mental, and they can be set ahead of time or in the moment with your family members," she explains, while acknowledging they can be difficult to set with those closest to us.

"If this is the case, I recommend accessing your support systems and talking to a family member that you trust to help you navigate through your difficulties and have an ally in the moment who can help reiterate that your boundaries deserve to be respected."

If boundaries prove too challenging, try redirecting or responding to unwanted questions or unsolicited advice vaguely, Mairanz suggests.

"Prepare yourself not to get into an argument and just respond to what the person is saying, knowing that any kind of further discussion is not really going to go anywhere," she says.

Political polarization

The holidays can also present the opportunity for uncomfortable conversations with outspoken family members, especially about politics and values, with the most recent Election Day right behind us and the 2024 presidential race picking up steam.

"If there is a difference of opinion amongst family members, conflict or discomfort may arise," Stockard says.

How to navigate: "It is more than OK to decide that you do not want to engage in political discussions at family gatherings and ask your family members to respect your decision ahead of time," Stockard suggests.

If your request is not honored prior to a gathering, you have the choice to not attend, she says. If a line is crossed in the moment, you can choose whether or not to engage in the conversation and reiterate your boundary.

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