How to Have a Happy Holiday Despite Family Tensions

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How to Have a Happy Holiday Despite Family Tensions

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: Tim Kubacki/flickr


Family tensions are often heightened during the holidays. With the dangers, fears, and restrictions of COVID-19, you may find it especially difficult to summon the energy and positive attitude to feel happy and to keep family tensions from escalating. But with a little effort, celebrating with family can be something that makes you smile.

You can make the holidays a festive time by taking the following steps to lighten your heart:

Be positive, but match your expectations to the reality of each relationship. Reflect on your relationships. Are they deep, caring relationships or more superficial ones? Are they mutually emotionally supportive, competitive, or even hostile? As you reflect on each relationship, you can make yourself happier by choosing to match your expectations to what they can offer.

For example, you might decide to be nice and generous and giving. But do it all because it feels good to you, not because you are trying to get someone to be uncharacteristically nice back to you, which can simply be an exercise in frustration.

Choose carefully when to address problems. Bringing up ongoing issues during the holidays will likely escalate tension. So if at all possible, don’t do it! Instead, choose to get along, focusing on positives or mutually enjoyable activities. If there are subjects that need to be discussed, be careful about when and how you approach the topic.

Create a plan for enjoying time together. Develop plans for how you will socialize. This might include in-person get-togethers as well as virtual ones. If you are having a virtual holiday with family, it will definitely be different than your traditional ones. Though it cannot replace being able to actually hug and kiss one another, it can still hold a special place in your holiday memories, especially if you gear up for the family time. Be sure to recognize the occasion by losing the comfy clothes and dressing for the day. Plan games or fun activities, such as decorating cookies or watching a favorite holiday movie together (in your separate homes, but done simultaneously). You might even come prepared with questions to enliven conversations, such as what is your favorite holiday memory, food, or movie?

Create a plan for how to manage family tension. Despite the dream of a blissful time together, tensions often run especially high during the holidays — and this year they are likely to be even higher. Do your best to avoid heightening them further or triggering fights. For instance, when your sister gives you “helpful” suggestions about parenting your children, politely change the subject. With video conferencing, you may find it easier to distract by attending to something off screen.

Challenge negative thinking and develop constructive alternatives. If you are stuck in pessimistic or negative thinking, reflect on whether you really want to live that way. If not, choose to try to view things more positively. For example, rather than ruminating on how miserable you feel about not being able to spend time in person with family and friends, focus on how good it is to socialize with them online as opposed to totally missing out on their company. Importantly, it is generally not helpful to try to talk yourself out of your unhappiness. Instead, accept what you are distressed about while also acknowledging and giving more attention to what you are grateful for or happy about.

There is no way to instantly eliminate the stresses of COVID or ongoing family tensions. But with some preparation, you can avoid problems, enhance good feelings, and even find yourself smiling during the upcoming holidays.

WebMD Blog

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Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.