7 Stressful Holiday Situations Solved by Therapists

Truth be told, the most wonderful time of the year can also be the most stressful. Between now and the New Year, there are plenty of stress-inducing situations you may need to handle with care. Are you feeling guilty about how you’re splitting time among family members? Does your spouse’s over-the-top gift budget touch off arguments? Are you starting to resent how lopsided the holiday tasks have become? Here, we’ve asked therapists and a divorce coach to help solve some of the trickiest, and most stressful, scenarios that tend to pop up this time of year so that you can better enjoy the holiday season.

1. Your parents are divorced. You feel stressed divvying up the holidays so you and your children can spend quality time with both of their grandparents, and your spouse’s family, too!

Adult children of divorced parents can often feel like they are caught in the middle, wanting to appease both sides, says Kim Wheeler Poitevien, LCSW, with Amel Counseling and Consulting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Feeling guilty is normal, she says. But, you don’t want this guilt to drive you to committing to tough arrangements like scuttling between three different holiday parties on Christmas Day and tiring out your family. First, know this: “It is impossible for things to be perfectly equal,” Wheeler Poitevien says. If you are expected at multiple households for the holidays, she suggests choosing alternative days of the week to celebrate so you’re not stretched thin and so you can enjoy some quality time. “Having a special ritual or activity with one grandparent on the off day can lessen the sting,” she says. Instead of trying to go to two Thanksgivings on Thursday, have one celebration on the weekend and see a play or a show, she suggests. Plan ahead, and focus on how excited you and the kids are to spend time with them. If the grandparents are relatively friendly, consider hosting the dinner in a neutral setting like your home or a restaurant, Wheeler Poitevien suggests.

2. Your teenagers are tethered to their phones and you feel like your family is missing out on quality time together. 

Should the dining room be a no-phone zone? Should there be a limit on how much time is spent on WiFi? The first way to approach this situation would be to get clear about your expectations, says David Klow, founder of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago and author of “You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist.” “Be realistic about what your holiday time together as a family will look like now that your children are older,” he says. “It might be different than how it was when they were younger. It may also be different than what it will be once they grow up. This middle phase of life with teenagers is such a transitional one.” Because of this, your traditions and rituals may need to transition as well. Once you are clear about your expectations, it’s time to communicate them clearly to your family, Klow says. Take some time to negotiate with your teens about their phone use and let them know in advance what the expectations are around the holidays.

3. Political arguments erupt into arguments at the holiday table.

Back in 2016, politically divided families may have agreed discussing the election was specifically off the table. But, avoiding politics as a whole can be difficult as even a discussion about weather can touch off a debate about climate change. If a remark is particularly offensive, it’s natural to want to dive in, explains John Mathews, a Virginia-based licensed therapist. “We are hardwired to greet hostility with hostility, so to disarm this situation you’ll have to fight against your own nature,” he says. If a relative takes a jab at a political issue you support, you could say something neutral about the topic being loaded and then switch the subject. “If your family member doesn’t take the hint, it’s time to be direct,” Mathews says. “Tell them you’re not interested in having this conversation, or maybe you are interested, but you’d like to wait until another time.” Most of the time, people will be gracious enough to honor your request, he says.

holiday stress dinner table
Photo by Christiann Koepke on Unsplash.

4. You host family every year in your home. But, you feel like you’re “waiting on them,” cleaning up their messes and cooking for them, and you don’t get enough time to enjoy the holidays, too. 

If you find yourself feeling resentful of others in situations like this, chances are you need to set and maintain clear expectations to make sure your needs are met along with your family’s,” says Elise Hall, MSW, a Massachusetts-based licensed independent clinical social worker. As the host, your priority is to make sure the day runs smoothly and a good time is had by all, including yourself, Hall says. One way to handle this is to assign roles to all family members. For example, who can bring a dish or come a little early to help set up? Who can chat with you while drying a few dishes as someone else sets out dessert? “Set the tone in advance by asking for the help ahead of time so your guests are already involved before they even arrive at your house,” Hall says. We sometimes believe asking for help is burdensome, but, she says, engaging the family in different tasks brings people together and encourages more collaboration, communication, and overall connection. 

5. My spouse wants to spend more on the kids’ gifts than I do. I prefer a “less-is-more” approach.

Differences in communication style and money are cited as two common areas in which many marriages struggle, says Britney Phifer, a licensed clinical therapist in addiction, marriage, and family and a clinical manager at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare in North Carolina. As with any topic in a marriage, open communication is key, she says. Oftentimes, allowing someone to feel heard can help ease tensions right out of the gate, lowering defenses and allowing room for that compromise. It is also important to consider the reasons behind certain disagreements, she says. “In the case of holiday spending, maybe one spouse grew up in a home where they did not receive much for Christmas, and giving more expensive gifts is an important expression of love and affection that they were unable to be shown,” Phifer says. “Perhaps now they have these resources and would like to express their affection in this manner.”

The key is listening, understanding, and conveying your values to your partner, she says. This allows you to step into a discussion of compromise that may resolve the disagreement.

holiday stress giving gifts
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash.

6. You’re newly divorced, and you want the holidays to feel special for your kids. 

The first holiday season can be the hardest, says Certified Divorce Coach Debra Doak. Your kids may be with their other parent for part of the holiday time and you may need to create new traditions. 

First, let it be different. “One of the best ways to help your children have a joyful holiday season is for you, their parent, to be joyful,” she says. “If you are obsessing about what you don’t have and what you don’t get to do, your children will absorb that emotion, too.” 

Then, be open to making new memories and traditions. You might go ice skating, or serve a meal at the homeless shelter, or make hot chocolate and drive around in search of the best holiday lights in town, she suggests. “Different is not less than,” she says. Ask your children if their friends have any traditions that they’d like to try. You might be surprised to hear they’ve always wanted to have reindeer antlers on the car.

7. You’re quick to lose your cool during the holidays and don’t want to be such a Scrooge! 

First, check in with your emotions, suggests Alex Pena, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Manhattan specializing in anxiety, life transitions, and relationships. Do you notice any common triggers? Does it occur more in specific locations or with particular people? When you lose your temper, are you frustrated, angry, disappointed, or annoyed?  Increasing your self-awareness about triggers for your temper can help you in formulating a de-escalation game plan, she says.

Next, think about what it looks like when you are about to lose your temper. Do you notice any muscle tension or shallow breathing? Or do you feel like your thoughts get stuck in a loop, repeating how difficult the situation is over and over again? “When you know the common triggers and early warning signs for your temper, you can plan accordingly,” Pena says. “You can take preventive instead of reactive measures.”

A quick way to de-escalate is leaving the situation or room, Pena says. “This can be as simple as excusing yourself to go to the bathroom, or saying that you need to take a break to calm down,” she says. Creating physical space between yourself and your stressor helps create emotional space to de-escalate. Other ways you can calm down, Pena says, may include taking a walk, stepping outside, listening to a favorite song or podcast, texting or speaking to a trusted loved one, or focusing on your breathing. 

With these therapist-approved tips, you’ll be able to confidently handle some of the toughest scenarios that pop up during the holidays. The result? Less stress; more joy.

Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness, and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.

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