Christmas brings opportunities for family and friend gatherings that we just don’t have as often throughout the rest of the year.  Gatherings can be fun and joyful, and they can also be stressful as we explored in Disappointing Holiday Expectations.  One of the reasons we can get overwhelmed around this time of year is because of spending extra time with friends or family.  

Thankfully there are several tricks you can have up your sleeve to make the family Christmas party a little easier this year.


We all have them.  We’re human, expectations are part of what has helped us survive.  But when it comes to unrealistic expectations or holiday hopes, we all need to refocus on reality.  Sure, it’s nice to hope that this year Grammy isn’t going to ask you when you’re ever going to find a husband.  Or to hope that Uncle Joe isn’t going to get drunk and start a family fight.  Or to hope that little sister Susie isn’t going to over-exaggerate everything to be the center of attention… again.  

These hopes are most likely unrealistic though.  Our family members each come with their strengths and weaknesses, and expecting them not to have weaknesses will only set you up for disappointment.  So go into this Christmas family gathering prepared to interact with family members exactly how they’ve always acted. Then, if anything HAS changed, then you can be pleasantly surprised! And if nothing has, you’re not disappointed because you’ve expected it.

Have a Plan

Once you are able to accept the reality that your family will always have their quirks, you can create a plan in advance for how to navigate the party.  To protect yourself, having a plan means setting boundaries BEFORE getting to the party.  

If you have a significant other or close family member, discuss things with them in advance as well.  Plan for what topics are OK to discuss, and other conversations to avoid.  Decide where you will feel comfortable sitting and who you want to sit by. Come up with conversation-filler questions for the dead silences, and practice topic-changing statements.  If there are any sensitive topics that you know will be difficult to avoid, practice how you are going to respond when that conversation is brought up.

Decide how many hours you will stay before getting there.  If you can only stay for three hours… one hour… until Uncle Joe starts singing off-key Christmas carols… Knowing when you are going to leave can make the party much easier to enjoy because you have an evacuation plan.  If worse comes to worse with the family’s behaviors or comments, at least you are leaving at a time that is good for you.

Know that It’s Not about You

One of the more profound lessons learned as I was becoming a counselor is that other people are going to say hurtful things towards me, but those words are not actually about me.  When people get angry or hurt or upset they often lash out.  And frequently the person they are lashing out at has nothing to do with what upset them in the first place.  

An example I often use is if somebody were to call me a penguin, do I suddenly realize after all this time that I am… in factA PENGUIN?!?  No, sadly I am not cool enough to be a walking, talking, deep-sea diving human-penguin hybrid.  Or with a loud pop and a puff of green smoke do I turn into a penguin?  No! Of course not! As I’ve been told by a little five year old girl before – that’s silly!  It sounds so ridiculous that even children wouldn’t fall for it.  

Yet if you replace the word “penguin” with “stupid” or “fat” or “ugly,” suddenly for some reason we believe the comment.  I would argue that this is because we have some sort of insecurity around that topic, but that’s a blog for another day.  So just keep in mind that when your family members say things to or about you, it says more about them than it does you.  What does it make that person if they are rude enough to make the comment that they did?

Bring a Sanity Survival Kit

We can bolster our mindsets and plan for every situation imaginable and still struggle in the moment.  If the family drama is getting overwhelming, having a Sanity Survival Kit will get you through until your planned departure time.  Information on the basics of developing this “kit” can be found in a past blog post Self-Care Through the Holidays.

Other components of a Sanity Survival Kit are:

Observation Game – Spend the time a little more emotionally detached by making observations.  This game can be played different ways, but the premise is that you more of your sensing side than your emotional self to keep yourself grounded. You can count the number of times Gran makes a comment about somebody’s appearance.  Or pretend to be an “alien observer coming to earth to learn about this primitive species’ rituals” and make mental observations about the people around you.  Whatever game seems most fun for you to keep your emotional response in check.

Worry Stone or other sensory comfort – Keep a Worry Stone or other small token in your pocket that gives you something to take your mind off your surroundings. Some people use a locket with a picture in it. Others write a helpful quote or Bible verse on a piece of paper and keep it in their pocket.  

Diaphragmatic Breathing – Breath deeply and slowly so that your stomach moves but your chest does not.

Mindful practice

Centering techniques

Music – Listen when you can without being rude.

Coloring app on phone

Memorized Quote

The number of things that can be helpful in a Sanity Survival Kit are as numerous and unique as people are.  Find several tools that can work for you and develop those with practice so they are ready to use whenever you need them.

If you find yourself struggling a bit more than normal lately with stress, depression, family issues or anything else, and you are wondering if counseling would be helpful to you, please contact me at 531-289-8246 or  I can help you figure out if counseling would be appropriate or what options there are to help you start feeling better.  Take care and have a good holiday!