Home Mental Health & Well-Being How to Navigate Stressful Family Relationships During the Holidays

How to Navigate Stressful Family Relationships During the Holidays

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When you think of the holidays, what comes to mind? Is it: Passing home-cooked meals around the dinner table? Opening gifts with a warm cup of coffee in hand? Family pictures in the living room? Relaxing with family and friends around a crackling fire?

For some people, this is exactly what comes to mind. It’s holiday parties, spending time with those you love, and hustling and bustling to make those memorable meals. However, this isn’t the case for everyone. Instead, what comes to mind is holiday stress and anxiety surrounding upcoming ‘quality time’.

Perhaps your parents are divorced and you have to choose which house to go to this year. Or maybe you and your cousin have a rocky relationship and you don’t want to make things awkward for the rest of your family. It could also be as simple as rolling your eyes at the idea of listening to your grandparents argue about politics.

If you have a difficult relationship with a friend or family member, enjoying the holidays can take a lot of work. When your stress levels rise and you start to feel overwhelmed, it’ll leave you feeling anxious, upset, and even depressed. This holiday season, it’s essential to learn how to manage your stress and navigate difficult relationships in healthy ways so you can slow down and enjoy the little things.

Practise mindfulness

You don’t have to be a yoga master or zen enthusiast to practice mindfulness year-round, especially during the holidays. When you feel stressed and are preparing to see someone you don’t necessarily have a good relationship with, find time to prioritize your mental health and give your brain a break. Try:

  • Deep breathing. Taking a few minutes to do some deep breathing can relax your muscles, relieve tension, and tell your brain to slow down. Belly breathing, which is the act of breathing in through your belly rather than your chest, has been known to increase these benefits.
  • Get active. It doesn’t matter if you live in a big city, the suburbs, or in a rural area, prioritise getting outside and being active. Take a walk around your neighbourhood, visit a nearby park or forest, throw on a pair of tennis shoes and go for a run, or go into town and window shop. Taking in the fresh air can help clear your mind and even combat seasonal affective disorder.

Limit your interactions and be the bigger person

Having difficult relationships with family members is, well, difficult. Other family members might feel like they need to choose sides and your tension can put a strain on everyone there. Because there’s only a small window of holiday cheer, you can’t afford to spend it being angry about someone’s presence.


Your mum called to tell you that the cousin you can’t stand will be attending the holiday dinner this year. Instantly you’re flustered, upset, and mapping out all of the negative things you’re going to say to them and how you plan to react.

You vent to one of your friends about it and you admit that yelling at your cousin will only make you feel better in the moment and could potentially strain your relationships with other family members. Even though you’ve come to this realisation, you still hate that they’ll be there and don’t know what to do.

In this situation, although it will be hard, it’s best to take the high road and be the bigger person. Caving in and starting an argument with your cousin will only make matters worse. Instead, limit how much you interact with them so you can remain stress-free.

When you do have to talk to someone that you have a rocky relationship with, try making light of conversation and put your differences aside. After all, once the holiday dinner is over, you get to go your separate ways.

When things get tough, talk to a professional

Maybe you’ve tried relaxation techniques and attempted to put your differences aside for the holidays. But what do you do when the holiday season fades and those difficult emotions remain? It might be best for you to speak with a mental health professional.

Therapists and counsellors can offer you catered guidance and support to cope with and manage your stress and give you advice on how to prepare those broken relationships. Prioritising your mental health before, during, and after the holidays is a smart decision.

Remember: Be patient, lean on those around you for support, practice healthy coping techniques during the holiday season, and talk to a counsellor for some extra support.

Madison Bambini is a communications coordinator at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree from VCU in mass communications, focusing on digital journalism and broadcast journalism. 

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