The Psych Central Report

Surviving Holiday Family Gatherings

by SS8282
November, 2004

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The holiday season is right around the corner, and for many people, it means a time of chaos, bankruptcy, and the dreaded holiday gatherings. Memories of past get-togethers come flooding back, and more often then not, negative incidents have more impact than positive ones. As a result, many people are feeling very stressed out and anxious.

For those people who have mental illness, such as social phobia, depression, and anxiety, the parties are the worst part of the holiday, and the fear starts to grow weeks and sometimes months before the holiday actually arrives. Stores have Christmas paraphernalia set up, the malls are getting busier, and the commercials on TV and radio keep a reminder that Christmas is coming.

The stress of shopping for gifts and decorations can be quite overwhelming, and some people can get pretty testy - fighting for parking spaces, being impatient in long line ups at the cash register, and as the day of the party gets closer, the anxiety level goes up several notches.

The 'tape' in the mind starts to play continuously. The negative incidents that occurred in the past, the relative who treated you in condescending ways, and kept on making you feel as if you are never good enough. The criticisms from people about the house, decorations, food, and you - in the way you look, your job (if you have one), your kids (if you have any). The most damaging criticisms the 'tape' keeps playing are the ones coming from you. There is also the 'what if' game that needs to be dealt with.

The 'tape' is enough to make you want to run and hide until the holidays are over. Unfortunately, obligations prevent that from happening. The good news is that there are strategies out there that you can use to make the gathering less stressful.

One of the best strategies is Plan Ahead - Be Prepared.


What the menu is, when to make what (the timing of preparing the dishes). Some things can be cooked or baked ahead of time. You can also go for some take-outs or delivery.

You might want to contact your guests to see if they are allergic to any food. This will minimize medical disasters.

Have people bring something they like, and it does not have to be something big. It could be an appetizer or dessert. This 'pot luck' will also help appease people who are very picky about food. This way, there is something on the table they will like.

Have a variety of beverages available - juice, pop - not just alcohol and perhaps have limited amount in the house. For some people, they can get carried away when they have too much to drink, and it can be hard to get them to stop before they get to that point. Make sure there is a designated driver, or if there is not one, then call a taxi or let them stay the night. Serve some appetizer before the dinner.


Oh, the dreaded family dinner. You know who's coming to dinner. You know what they are like, how they feel about various things. Think ahead of time on how you are going to answer or deal with the 'comments' and behaviours. If there is a relative whom you get along with (if you do not have a husband or wife to help you), have him or her on your 'team'. He/she can help out with food, buffering questions or comments that might make you feel uncomfortable.

Here are some more tips on dealing with 'unpleasant' relatives:

Set Ground Rules

If there are some 'issues' that you or your spouse (if applicable) do not want to be brought up, tell the relatives not to discuss them at the dinner. Perhaps you can talk to your side of the family, and your spouse (if applicable) talk to his/her side. What is important is that the 'issues' are to be 'agreed' between you and your spouse.

If you are allergic to animals, ask your guests not to bring them. It is your home and you do not have to suffer.

Choose Your Behaviour

Decide to respond by using logic and fact, rather than your emotions. Give yourself permission to take a break by going to another room. If you need privacy - go to the bathroom.

Acknowledge the Criticisms and Comments

If someone says something that is hurtful or at least uncomfortable, either ignore it, or acknowledge to them that you heard what was said, but leave it at that. Sometimes, that is enough to get them to stop.

One thing that you can say is "Now is neither the time nor place to discuss this."

Give Compliments

If someone brings a dish, praise it, and perhaps even ask for the recipe. This will help disarm anyone who arrived in a 'not so happy' disposition.

Use Humour

Humour is a wonderful tool to put people at ease, although you have to be careful of what you see as humour and other sees it as harm.

Look for the Positive

No matter how bad things seem to be, there is always something that is good. You just have to look for it - and hang on to it. Repeat to yourself: "This happens only once a year."

Take Refuge

If things get too overwhelming, take refuge and go to another room, or go to your bedroom (where there is privacy), and call a friend. Just a brief chat might help.

With all the hustle and bustle of the holiday, and everyone having his/her own opinion, try to remember this - it does not matter what others think, what matters is how "you" feel. As long as you like your house, the food, etc., then that is good enough. Your opinion counts! Of course, you do need to take into consideration of how your spouse feels too. Teaming up and compromising with your spouse will help make the gathering more pleasant.

One last thing - have a wonderful and safe holiday.

SS8282 graduated with a Specialized Honours BA in three years (instead of four) while working full-time hours to put herself through school. How she did it is mind-boggling, even to her. She then went on to do a post-graduate in Human Resources.

After working at various companies, she is now the Manager of Human Resources & Office Administration at an engineering company. She is in the process of 'training' her colleagues, who are all male, to be a little more 'civilized' in terms of language and behaviour, and she is succeeding at that.

Need some additional holiday coping tips? We recommend these articles:

Last updated: 20 Dec 2004
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 20 Dec 2004
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