The holidays can be a wonderful time for gathering and connecting with family, but they can also be a source of stress and tension. Managing holiday stress is crucial, especially when dealing with difficult or even toxic family members. Whether you’re trying to avoid talk of politics over appetizers, hints about wanting a grandchild over turkey dinner, or insinuations about your parenting style over dessert, we know family and in-laws can be challenging. Boundary setting is a gift that keeps giving.

Setting boundaries with family members is one of the most effective ways to cope with holiday stress — it’s a thoughtful and meaningful way to set up any relationship for long-term success. Boundaries are not about shutting people out but instead letting people in in a more sustainable way.

Boundaries can help you cope with a stressful family holiday. Before you wrap the gifts and pack your bags, read on for five holiday stress management tips so you can set boundaries with toxic family members and reduce holiday stress.

1. Find the “why” behind your holiday.

Take the time to reflect on why you are returning home for the holidays. Ask yourself the following five questions to find the why behind your holidays.

  1. Why are you going home for the holidays? 
  2. Are you going simply because you’re expected to? 
  3. Or are you going home because you’ll feel guilty if you don’t? 
  4. Are you hopeful that you could make some positive changes to your family traditions or dynamics this year? 
  5. Is there a part of you that’s genuinely excited about reconnecting with some family members and creating new memories?

If visiting your family comes at the expense of your mental health, the cost may be too high. You may consider adjusting your holiday plans or skipping a year to have time to plan and regroup for next year. 

However, if it still feels meaningful to be with your family for the holidays, nurturing an accepting attitude can be helpful. This doesn’t mean brushing their difficulties under the rug but acknowledging, “There are some tough dynamics here, so I’m going to need to be extra intentional about taking care of myself during this visit.”

2. Take your self-care seriously. 

Holiday burnout is often the culprit for short fuses and increased sensitivity around family members. When you’ve been going non-stop trying to meet end-of-year deadlines or create christmas magic for yourself and your family, it makes sense that you won’t have much energy left for anyone else’s issues or drama. And when you’re feeling burnt out, it can be really difficult to get creative about potential solutions or feel in control of feeling better. 

The first step to regaining that creativity and control is to focus on reducing stress in your body with important self-care practices. This can look like taking a break with a long walk, solitude, meditation or some other form of relaxation to gain some perspective and help get you in a calmer headspace. These intentional acts of self-care are so empowering to the burnt out brain because it reminds you that while there’s a lot in this world that you can’t control, you are in control of giving yourself peace and rest. 

If you’ve been good at prioritizing healthy routines for your mind and body and are still feeling flooded with difficult emotions or are dealing with a very emotionally-triggering situation this holiday season, try using an activity that connects specifically with your emotional needs, like this emotional acceptance exercise. The best way to set yourself up for a low stress-holiday season externally is to reduce as much stress internally as possible. 

3. Manage your expectations.

When tricky dynamics are at play, maintaining unrealistic expectations of family members can worsen your experience. Don’t let this aggravating habit get in the way of you enjoying your holiday.

For example, at family gatherings, you’ll often have family members who insist on asking intrusive questions about your dating life, marriage dynamics, family planning, or parenting style. We can talk at length about why these questions or comments are inappropriate, but some family members will probably still choose to engage with you in these ways.

Try to consider your experiences with your difficult family member from their perspective. They may see the world differently than you and may have varied levels of social or emotional skills. As Nedra Glover Tawwab, therapist and bestselling author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace, puts it, “We often assume that because parents have this role in our life, they should be able to provide love and attention. In reality, many people don’t nurture others or themselves well. That has little to do with us and everything to do with them.”

Consider what life experiences have shaped your difficult family members and are currently influencing them. It may not excuse their behavior, but it could give you enough perspective to give them a second chance or communicate your needs more gently with them. 

Often, family members are trying to love you through the ways they know best. Sometimes your communication can make all the difference. You may say something like, “Trying for a baby is really stressful on us right now. I know you love me and so I would feel more supported if we can put a hold on pregnancy talk for now.”

4. Create your boundaries. 

Discomfort, anxiety, or resentment towards a particular family member are all signs that a boundary may be needed. There are many kinds of boundaries, but the first steps is determining where you want to draw the line. Carve out some time to reflect on your goals for the holiday. Ask yourself:

  1. What is important to me going into the holidays? 
  2. What traditions do I want to preserve? 
  3. Which traditions do I want to retire?
  4. Which patterns do I want to break with your parents or in-laws?
  5. What other historical frustrations within my family would I like to avoid to create a more peaceful and connecting environment?

Based on your goals, your boundaries for the holidays may include:

  • Staying in a separate hotel or nearby AirBnB instead of with family.
  • Scheduling activities on your own to give yourself space or plan activities with the whole family that encourage connection instead of conflict.
  • Setting limits for gift-giving and cooking expectations and clarify them beforehand so everyone has time to prepare.
  • Planning a shorter trip than you have in the past and give yourself a day or two buffer at home to rest before returning to work.
  • Grounding yourself with your daily routine, including exercise, meditation, or prayer.
  • Assertively sharing your preferences for certain traditions, boundaries around parenting decisions for your children, and needs for personal connection.
  • Standing up for yourself when family members ignore, dismiss, or disrespect the boundaries you have set. 

For example, if you notice that staying in the same house as your extended family members for the holiday brings you unnecessary stress, throws off your family’s rhythm and routine, and often leads to more conflict by the end of the trip, make the decision to stay at a hotel and AirBnB instead. This will give you some control back to your holiday and help you create a protected, private space to rest in-between family gatherings and activities so that you can show up regulated and energized to be your best self with the people around you. 

5. Communicate your boundaries 

Communicating your boundaries calmly and confidently is one of the most challenging parts of setting and enforcing boundaries. It’s helpful to remember that your end of the conversation is the only part you can control, and you are not responsible for how your family member feels about your boundaries. Here are our tips for how to communicate assertively and give yourself the best chance of being heard. 

  1. Use “I” Language. Stick to sharing your experience about how you feel and why a change is essential to you.
  2. Express a positive need instead of a negative complaint or criticism. 
  3. Keep it simple and focused on the present.
  4. Anticipate pushback or defensiveness. Change is often seen as a rejection.
  5. Repeat your positive need, and remember your experience is valid. 

Finding the right words can be hard, but don’t let that stop you from speaking up for yourself. Here are some examples from Nedra Tawab’s Instagram (@nedratawwab) for how to set boundaries “kindly.” 

  • “I know you love me and want the best for me. I would like it if you supported me by listening instead of offering feedback.” 
  • “That sounds very challenging. I would love to help, but it seems like an issue that should be handled by a professional.”
  • “I care about you deeply, but I cannot help you with your issue.”
  • “I’m not able to support you financially, but I am willing to support you in another way.”
  • “We need to reassess how we handle the way we communicate, because it doesn’t seem to be working for either of us. 
  • “I don’t want to talk about hot-button topics. Let’s change the subject.”
  • “We’d like to get together the week before the holiday and have the actual holiday at home.”
  • “Last year was stressful. I would like to talk about what we could do differently.”

It’s important to remember that even if you phrase your boundary perfectly and politely, you may still get pushback or confusion. Pushback to our previous example may sound like, “I can’t understand why you’re not staying at our house this year, you’re hurting your mother’s feelings and you’re going to miss so much by staying at an Air BnB.” Stay firm with your boundary and even with your tone of voice, don’t let their pushback throw you. Respond with something like, “I know this isn’t what you’d prefer and that it’s difficult to understand why it’s important to us, but it’s whats best for me and our family this year and I’m hopeful that it will help us all enjoy the holiday more.”

You can set boundaries for the holidays and beyond. 

Boundaries can feel scary and hard, but there is so much value in stepping out of your comfort zone and putting yourself first. A new behavior rarely feels comfortable, but after a hard-fought battle with fear, the reward is a new sense of self-respect. And when you’re working on relationships with your family, boundaries will help protect relationships for the long haul.

Our therapists can help you craft boundaries and create a plan to cope with complex family dynamics. We have availability for in-person sessions at our Charlotte, NC office or virtually for residents of NC and SC.  

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