A Therapist’s Guide To Surviving Festive Family Drama

Photographed by Ashely Armitage.
For many, the festive period is a time for joy, merriment and amazing food — but for others, it’s a source of stress and anxiety, thanks to family drama around the dinner table. Maybe you have a strained relationship with a family member, or maybe the political climate is making things feel especially toxic this year. Either way, the last thing you want is for a relaxing break from work to turn into an incredibly stressful situation you have to manage.
You can’t control other people’s actions, but there are some things you can do to protect your own mental health and wellbeing from any tension that might crop up over the festive season. Think of the following expert-backed strategies as your unofficial Festive Survival Guide.

Know your own triggers

Before the Christmas period begins, take a few minutes to nail down what exactly tends to set you off at a family gathering. Does your temper tend to flare when your Aunt Mary asks why you’re still single, for instance? Or when the talk turns political? Or when your cousin praises Elon Musk’s “work ethic”? Knowing your triggers allows you to make a loose plan for how you’ll handle them when they crop up.
It also helps you avoid inadvertently bringing up something that’s actually a sensitive topic for you. “Don’t invite people into part of your life in a conversation if that’s not an area where you want them to go,” Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, an in-house expert at the Paired app, tells Refinery29. In other words, don’t tell Aunt Mary about your last crappy date or your attempts at swiping on Hinge or Tinder if your goal is to avoid the “Still single?” question.

Come prepared with conversation topics

One of the best ways to steer a conversation is to change topics, so come prepared: Have a handful of neutral conversation starters in your back pocket to pull out when tensions start creeping up at the table.
Bring up New Years’ Eve plans — are your relatives staying in or going out? Your favourite old festive movies. Whether your old English teacher is still working at the school. Whether it’s really necessary to separate colours when you wash clothes. What your favourite festive dish is. How to really clean your white trainers. Then when your Aunt Mary asks when you’re finally getting married, you can simply say, “Oh, you’re so funny. Have you been watching anything good on Netflix lately?” A no-fail solution: “Ask them about themselves,” Kristen Harrington, a marriage and family therapist located in Kingston, NY says. “Then they may forget to be nasty.”

Let yourself take breaks

If you’re only home for a few days and you don’t see your family often, it can be tempting to try to spend every spare minute with them to really soak it all in. But DeGeare says there’s nothing wrong with going for a quick walk or scheduling a time to chill alone. If you feel guilty, remind yourself that taking time away from your family is actually the most loving thing you can do for them, because it makes the time you are spending with them better.
“A lot of times, especially around holidays, people get stuck in the house and then they get caught up in childhood cycles,” DeGeare explains. “So do whatever you can to step out of that normal cycle you get stuck in when you go home.” That means regularly stepping away to re-ground yourself. I’m even a fan of the extra-long bathroom break in really dire moments.

Forgive yourself for losing your cool

Triggering subjects are bound to come up during your holiday gathering, and you know what kind of conversations may pop up during dessert better than anyone. Go in with the intention to just have a good time, which might mean letting your family’s rude comments slide. “Having a screaming match about why they shouldn’t have voted for someone isn’t going to do anything,” DeGeare says. “No one’s changing their vote, and it’s not going to change their opinion on these topics that are really important.” Getting worked up about it will get you nowhere — but still, if it happens, let yourself off the hook if you lose your cool. Life is often stressful, and holiday stress on top of that isn’t an ideal combination for anyone.
But, she says that if you know that at some point there’s a chance you’re going to have a conversation about current events, think about what the message is you really want to get across and practice that in advance. “Having a plan in terms of how you’d like to respond to these kinds of things really can give you a leg up on the situation,” she says.
And remember — in the end, you can’t choose your family members. But you can choose how you cope with them and the steps you can take to protect your own mental health.

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