COVID-19 Information and Resources
COVID-19 Information and Resources
Free & Confidential Services for Employees, Physicians, Professional Staff & IHP Students
EAP News
November 20, 2023

What you can do to Navigate Family Relationships during the Holidays

Stacey J. Drubner, JD, LICSW, MPH

It’s that time of year again. The holidays are upon us. Despite our hopes and best efforts, sometimes it’s a challenge to achieve a stress-free holiday season with family. Time together is a gift but managing dynamics can also be complicated.

Expectations are higher at the Holidays 

  • Social media and Hollywood paint a picture that is not realistic or attainable
  • Time with extended family doesn’t always come often, leading to pressure for everything to be perfect


Several factors make us feel that we are not in control

  • The unpredictable behavior of others
  • Loss/loneliness due to death, divorce, or separation from certain family members
  • Disruptions to routines, such as exercise or healthy eating
  • Financial stress, due to pressure and different expectations about spending and gift traditions


Don’t just Let the Holidays Happen to You – Be an Active Participant in Your Own Happiness

Chances are we will not completely resolve family issues between now and New Year’s. However, there are things you can do to feel more in control and make this time the best it can be. Consider taking a step back to anticipate potential sources of stress and conflict, and create a plan to minimize negative impacts. Being passive and hoping for the best is not typically a successful game plan. A little advance effort can make a difference.

Questions to consider 

  • What worries you about the holidays this year?
  • What has triggered your stress in the past?
  • What has previously helped you cope?
  • What has been unproductive or made things worse?
  • Are there things you cannot change?

Come up with a plan

  • What can you address in advance?
  • How can you respond in the moment?
  • How can you let go of things that are out of your control?

Before meeting with family









  • Commit to managing your expectations and being realistic about the capabilities of everyone, including yourself
    – Your grumpy uncle is probably not going to change his personality just because it’s a holiday
    – Some people are not good at math or tennis; some are not good at relationships
    – You may need to accept that life changes may alter traditions and dynamics
  • Try to resolve anticipated conflicts or negotiate with family before you meet (if it won’t make things worse)
    –  Reach for agreement on on thing like the menu, limits on spending for gifts, or meeting time
  • Identify an ally (either someone at or outside of the gathering) in case things become difficult
  • Have a plan for how you will handle stressful moments
    – Count to 10 before reacting
    – Be ready with a response such as “let’s not discuss politics”
    – Have an internal mantra or phrase that can help you cope – “Holidays are time-limited”
    – Have a ready-made reason for a break, such as taking the dog for a walk
  • Accept that your budget may not parallel that of others
    – Commit to being OK with your values and what you can afford


During the Visit or Gathering

A lot of family conflicts are predictable and preventable.  We are probably aware of potential issues, but tend to repeat the same (unsuccessful) behaviors in response. We may even know what we should do, but that may not always be easy . We offer this guidance: Don’t take the bait or Change the dance. This is your best chance to stop the cycle of conflict. If your siblings try to provoke you, choose not to respond in kind. You are an adult who navigates life just fine outside of the holidays.



You may ask “why should I be the one to make adjustments?” Because, you want a happy, low stress holiday.

In the words of Wayne Dyer, “How people treat you is their karma; How you react is yours.”

Try to minimize stress and disagreement

  • Fill the time together with activities, such as cooking/baking, watching a movie or being outdoors
  • Avoid controversial topics like politics, or be prepared to navigate these discussions. This entails being respectful and open to differing viewpoints
  • As tempting as it may be, don’t engage in negative conversations with others about family members
  • Practice tolerance, compassion, and patience
    – Consider the challenges (known or not known) that others may be facing
  • Reframe negative thoughts
    – What about this person is special, triggers gratitude or is worthy of your understanding?
  • If things at the gathering start to feel stressful, use some of the tools you have identified in advance
  • It’s perfectly acceptable to walk away from a situation that cannot be resolved


Always Be Kind to and Take Care of Yourself


Much of the guidance above focuses on what you can do to maintain relationships and get along with others. This does not mean you should do this at the expense of your own well-being. If a situation is too traumatic or unhealthy for you, then give yourself permission to skip altogether, or just participate for part of the festivities.



There are many things you can do to take care of yourself leading up to and during this season. Maximizing your own well-being can put you in a better position to manage stress and deal with challenging people and situations.


The holidays often involve a departure from regular routines. While it can be nice to take a break from a strict diet or regular exercise, don’t abandon healthy lifestyle goals altogether. These practices can help you cope. Consider enjoying the holidays in moderation, with attention to:

  • Exercise
    – You can take a break outdoors wherever you are
    – Getting outside can provide a helpful release


Consider an alternative perspective

Sometimes we can bolster our own well-being by engaging in things that help us take the focus away from ourselves.


Be mindful of financial well-being

The holidays can represent pressure to spend on gifts, food and entertaining. It’s not only OK but advisable to have a plan for holiday spending. This is especially important this year when regular expenses have increased significantly. While it may be disappointing not to be able to spend freely, it’s preferable not to start the New Year in debt. Instead of expensive gifts, consider small charity donations, homemade items, or pairing up for gift giving.


Here are some resources that might help:


Other EAP Relationship Features:

The Challenges of Conversation Etiquette in the Workplace


Help from the EAP

The EAP offers free and confidential services for employees and immediate household family members. EAP records are separate from medical and HR records. Contact the EAP at 866-724-4327 or request an appointment via our online form for confidential assistance. In-person appointments are available at the following locations. Phone or Video (Zoom) appointments are available from all locations

© 2024 Mass General Brigham EAP All rights reserved.