If you begin to feel anxious and stressed as the holiday season approaches each year, you are not alone. While this time of year brings colder weather, sometimes this is the perfect setting for family gatherings to get heated and uncomfortable. This time to focus on being thankful, can instead introduce feelings of stress and frustration that can start to consume us.


If you find yourself dealing with difficult family members during the holidays, consider the following strategies to minimize stress and maximize fun, from the counseling center at Catholic Charities.

1. Be a Curious Observer

Sometimes, taking a back seat to a difficult situation can have a positive outcome. Instead of adding your opinion, focusing on your family member’s behavior, or being consumed by feelings that may be hurt, take a step back and look at the scenario from an objective standpoint; a journalist or scientist frequently needs to work objectively and keep emotions out of their work in order to be successful. Notice personal dynamics from a standpoint of curiosity to help you not take things as personally.


2. Be Prepared

Just as you prepare for a first date with conversation starters, have some ideas ready of things you can speak to your family about. Avoid topics that are highly inflammatory like politics. Deanna Iwai, a Catholic Charities counselor, says, “Have some pat phrases available.” These phrases can keep the conversation going and avoid awkward silences.


If the conversation takes an unwelcome turn, do what you can to disengage. Be ready to change the subject or find common ground. It may help take the sting out of a hurtful comment.


3. Focus on the Children

Are your family gatherings filled with children? If so, it may be the perfect opportunity to avoid some of the more volatile conversations with other family members.


Engage the children at family events, Iwai suggests. You can ask them about their daily lives or play a game with them. Likewise, ask parents about their children. Most parents love to share information and tell stories about their children. Keeping children engaged can create a positive focus at your family gathering.

4. Plan Your Exit

Some events linger on and it might feel difficult to make an exit. Instead of staying longer than you are comfortable, create a plan for your departure. Iwai suggests, “Have a plan for afterward. Have something to look forward to for after the event, like a bubble bath or a movie with your spouse or children.” Starting a new tradition such as getting hot chocolate, looking at Christmas lights, or meeting friends for dessert, will give you a good reason to leave.


5. Set Boundaries

The holidays can be stressful. Don’t add to the stress by trying to please everyone; it simply cannot be accomplished in most cases. While you should consider the thoughts and feeling of others, you do not have to let them hijack your holiday.


You don’t have to keep going along with the family traditions if they are not working for you,” Iwai said. She recommends setting boundaries, but do it with a neutral tone. For example, you can say, “Yeah, I’m sorry, but from now on I am spending Christmas at home with my wife and children.”


Suggest an alternative day to celebrate together like the weekend before or after Christmas. Everyone may not be happy with your decision, but it still may be best for you and your family.


Getting Extra Help

Hopefully, these strategies will help you have a peaceful season with in-laws and other family members. However, if you need more support or help in finding healing from family wounds, please call the Catholic Charities counseling center at 602-749-4405. Rates are offered on a sliding scale based on income.

Founded in 1933, Catholic Charities provides care for the vulnerable of all faiths in Phoenix and northern Arizona through programs in foster care, early start education, housing, veteran services, refugee relocation and poverty reduction. Learn more by visiting Social connections include and



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