How to Keep the Peace With Your Family Over the Holiday Season

By Relationships Australia

The holidays are a time where people feel the need to come together, but not everyone has a family – or one they feel safe and comfortable with, or accepted by. So, how can you keep the peace with your family over the holiday season?

Because of the pressure we put on the holidays – and events like Christmas, Hannukah and New Year – conflict and feelings like loneliness, resentment, anger, loss and sadness can be amplified. Financial, health and work struggles can make it extra stressful.

With this handy guide, we’ll help you navigate this tricky time – no matter your family situation.

How family dynamics can impact the holidays

Not everyone has a good relationship with their family. In fact, 71.9% of Australians report experiencing relationship pressures

If your family doesn’t support or accept you – whether it be your sexuality, gender identity, disability, religion, career or other choices – it can be difficult to spend time with them, especially during the holidays.

Many families are also impacted by conflict, trauma, abuse, and estrangement, making it even harder to see each other and keep the peace – especially on top of the extra stresses this season can bring.

While complex family dynamics can make any time of the year challenging, our CEO and clinical psychologist Elisabeth Shaw says the holidays can be an especially heated time.

“Many families only gather for big events, and this might even be the only one for the year, so there’s often a lot riding on it being a success,” she said.

“There can be traditions that are quite stressful, such as the burden of hosting an elaborate meal for many people, the expectations of the standard of the meal, and seeing people who you are related to but may not really enjoy their company.

Add in the consumption of alcohol, and the length of the day’s festivities, and there is plenty of opportunity for trouble.”

Too much pressure on one event

TV shows, movies and popular culture have given us unrealistically high expectations about the holidays. While the specific holiday traditions and the way we celebrate might be different, what is often portrayed as a time of joy, family, gratitude and celebration can, in reality, be incredibly challenging.

There’s a lot of pressure to be perfect, to push yourself, and to be in situations that don’t feel comfortable or safe – just for the sake of doing what is expected of us. 

“We tend to expect it will be a happy time, and that family members will put aside any differences for this one day.” Elisabeth said.

“If the family has rigid rules about how everything has to be – where to sit, what to eat – that can feel suffocating for some, even if it’s a source of great comfort and tradition to others.”

These expectations are a lot to manage when there’s conflict, and for anyone experiencing financial, personal or work stress. It can also be harder for people with mental illness, chronic illness and other disabilities, particularly those who don’t have supportive and understanding families. With these conditions, certain tasks and expectations might just not be possible.

How can you manage family conflict throughout the holidays?

Managing family expectations and your personal wellbeing in the holidays can be overwhelming – and everyone’s situation is different. Only you can decide what is best for you. It’s important to remember that it’s okay if your decisions don’t please everyone around you.

Accepting that not everyone can get what they want, and handling the guilt and upset that this causes is all part of the navigation,” says Elisabeth.

If you have to attend family events, it can be helpful to set boundaries and expectations, and discuss practicalities ahead of time. A healthy family will be happy to be flexible to meet your needs. For example, maybe you aren’t well enough to cook a feast: but buying pre-cooked meals, or asking someone else to help cook could be an option. Or maybe you don’t have capacity for a longer, more formal event, and something quick and casual might be a better fit.

You should prioritise sharing what you need, and putting your wellbeing first – but it’s also important to practise empathy. If there’s resolvable conflict, it might present an opportunity to be open and upfront before the event to talk through possible solutions. Even if you can’t fix the issue, sometimes just discussing, acknowledging, and accepting it can be a huge help – and reassure you that there are other people who support you.

It might also be helpful to talk to a mental health professional or people in your support networks: they can help with coping strategies, venting, building a safety plan, and helping you recognise your triggers, and how you can manage them.

“Try not to spend time revisiting all the negativity in the past, as that will only escalate your sense of upset and anxiety,” Elisabeth suggests.

“Instead, do it just enough to plan how you will manage different provocations – that will make you feel more empowered and confident in the end. Start the event as you mean to go on – from a position of positivism, even if also cautious.”

“It’s important to remember that the only thing you can control is yourself. A lot of people spend their time imagining what others will do and how annoying they might be. This means that all your planning goes into ruminating on the problem of other people, rather than getting clear on what you are going to do or not do to make things work out better for you.”

It can also be more challenging if you have to juggle multiple events with multiple families. Solutions for making it easier could include leaving events early, or having the celebration on an alternative day. But remember – if it’s too much, you don’t have to go.

“For some, not attending is the best thing. This is especially the case where there has been abuse, where it feels unsafe because of the dynamics or drinking, or where you feel really set up to fail.”

Remember: it’s just another day

There’s often a lot of pressure to please others or uphold traditions, but we have to ask ourselves: how do these expectations serve us?

We don’t have to spend time with family in the holidays. Find other ways to make it special for you. Spend time with your friends and chosen families, watch your favourite movies, cook yourself a special meal. Connect with people online, or spend some time volunteering. There are many ways to make it meaningful, without spending time with family.

“There are many people who are spending the holidays away from family because of conflict, or migration, or work.”

“Do some volunteering, which creates some shared purpose and focus for the day. Think, too, about who you can connect with and make the day meaningful.”

“Perhaps you can have other smaller gatherings over the summer to ensure you’re still in touch and can enjoy time with those who you connect easier with.”

If you need some extra support over the festive season to manage your mental health and relationships, there is help available.

If you’re finding navigating your family dynamics difficult, family counselling could help. Our family counselling service provides families with a space to explore difficulties, hear each other’s perspectives, rebuild trust and strengthen relationships.

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