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10 Tips for Surviving Holiday Family Gatherings

It’s the start of the holiday season. which for many people means lots of family time.

If you’re struggling with a mental illness, you might feel overwhelmed with to-do lists, gifts, cookies, meals, decorations, and get-togethers. A lot is packed into a few short months.

Here are 10 ways to help you make it through these next few months.

  1. Remember (and state) the positive. Sure, Uncle Hector might belch at inopportune times, but he taught you how to fish when you were five. Your son’s boyfriend might be in pajama pants, but think about how happy he makes him. Say these things out loud, and you will see a visible change in their demeanor. Too often we keep the compliments to ourselves and spew out the negatives. Try to turn that around. Keep the negative from escaping and state all the positive things that enter your mind.
  2. Have a Wingman/Wingwoman. This is the person that will stand between you and the person who stresses you out. Wingmen provide buffers to limit interactions that cause distress. They can serve as a physical barrier but also an emotional one. If your mom is a criticizer, your wingman could say something in your defense. They can also provide emergency hugs, knowing glances, and reassuring words
  3. Talk to your supportive loved ones beforehand. If there is a lot of animosity within your extended family, tell your spouse. Let her know that you might need extra support. This way they can keep an extra eye out for you. Smartphones have made clandestine conversations very easy by texting. You can receive support while your loved one is in the other room!
  4. Devise an escape plan. It might get to the point where things are simply too difficult and you feel the need to leave. Consider taking a walk or drive if a short break would be helpful. If you’re in your own house, allow yourself to retreat to an empty room and take time to breathe. Learn a couple of deep breathing techniques and use them.
  5. Adjust your expectations. If you go in thinking that this will finally be the year grandma doesn’t get drunk and curse out the kids, or that this will be the year where no one argues politics, you’re most likely to be disappointed. Try and keep your expectations both small but also realistic. It’s even better if you can keep your expectations limited to things that you have control over. For example, you might have the expectation that the party ends on time. You can make the decision to leave, even if others are still there.
  6. Keep the conversation focused on the current times, not on old wounds. Family patterns tend to remain stuck in time, and childhood wounds are easily reopened. Take the high road and don’t joke or bring up things that are painful to the other person. Yes, the story about when Aunt Janet sleepwalked naked is hilarious, Aunt Janet might not think so. So she’ll bring up the time you snuck out and smoked pot when you were 16, which will make you mad, and so on.
  7. Know when to be quiet. If you feel your temper rising, step back. If your voice is rising, step back. If loud voices are a trigger for you, try and leave the conversation or room before things get heated. Your silence sends a loud message, as well.
  8. Don’t drink to excess. Or just don’t drink at all! Alcohol’s ability to loosen inhibitions is legendary.
  9. Agree to disagree. Or even agree simply to get out of the conversation. It’s okay to walk away when things get upsetting. And conversations that are heated often end poorly. The phrase, “let’s agree to disagree” is powerful.
  10. Remember it’s only a few hours. Bite your tongue and laugh it off. Allow the craziness to slip off you and enjoy the rest.
  11. (BONUS) find a pet. They can be a distraction, a way of soothing yourself, and you get all the benefits petting an animal brings.

The holidays are stressful, and this can be especially true if you struggle with mental illness. So this is the season to take extra good care of yourself. Try to do things that are comforting. Eat foods that taste delicious and nourish your body. See your therapist for extra support. You deserve to be treated with kindness and love.

10 Tips for Surviving Holiday Family Gatherings

Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. She works with individuals and couples, and specializes in relationship counseling. She's now offering online counseling for residents of Ohio. Stay Connected . Follow her on twitter; and connect with her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Harmon, J. (2019). 10 Tips for Surviving Holiday Family Gatherings. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Nov 2019
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