How to Set Yourself (and Your Family) Up for Success this Holiday Season

Let’s get ready for the holiday gatherings this year by preparing ourselves and our family members!

“My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others.” —Bob Hope

For some people, this truly is the “most wonderful time of the year.”  There is a constant barrage of friend and family gatherings, the special dinners, the White Elephants, the festive activities, the service projects. For many, it is a time of upbeat parties that strengthen relationships and fill us with the cheer of the holiday season…

For others, however, it is a dreaded time of gathering with family and friends and facing long-standing rifts and tiffs and disagreements. Maybe you have not spoken to a family member in years, or you have an uncle that always rants about politics, or a mother-in-law whose parenting advice fills you with immense anxiety. Regardless of which camp you may fall into, there are things you can take to help set yourself up for success this holiday season. 

  1. Nevermind being the hostess with the mostest. By all means, host–especially if you love it! But if/when you host, reign yourself in by not doing every single little thing by yourself or by planning extremely intricate, over-the-top details. Ask for help. Let guests pitch in. Use what you have; you do not need to go get all new gold cutlery simply because it is trending. Your literal silverware will work GREAT!
  2. Look for a friendly face. This goes for whether you are hosting or attending: When the event begins or even if you find yourself ever feeling out of place, seek out the people you know and enjoy spending time with. Sticking by the good communicators will help you feel at ease and will set you up to have an enjoyable time.
  3. Only have expectations for yourself. Spoiler alert: You are only in control of yourself. You can only control yourself. You cannot control anyone other than yourself! Therefore, do not expect anything of anyone–other than yourself. You cannot control your nosy aunt from asking why you are still single, but you can control your reaction and response! 
  4. Be prepared. (Cue Scar from Lion King.) Really–the biggest key to setting yourself up for success in any holiday gathering is being prepared. Know what you want and need. Know what triggers you and how to react/respond/avoid it. A few examples might include the following: If your family tends to have many activities and you (or your littles) tend to get hungry, pack snacks! Or if you know you (or your kids) get overwhelmed by about the ninth hour at Grandma’s, stick to a timeline. Leave after dinner, games, dessert, and the family slideshow. These are simple examples, but thinking through situations that can cause you stress will allow you to be prepared to avoid those anxiety-inducing scenarios.
  5. Connecting conversations. Watch what you say and the conversations you participate in; save the controversial issues for a different day. Show genuine interest in others; encourage them to talk by asking open-ended questions that cannot be answered with just a “yes” or “no.” You can use the phrase “Tell me about …” to elicit longer responses or to avoid asking questions that might be uncomfortable to answer. Also be sure to share your stories and open up to other people about your life (if you are comfortable). If the timing is appropriate, share your humorous and happy holiday memories. People like to share their own holiday experiences, so this topic should go over quite well during this time of year. 
  6. Decide that differences are okay. You are allowed to think/feel/act/live differently than your cousin/sister/brother/father/aunt and still be in the same room as each other. You can be friends/family and coexist in the same sphere while seeing things and the world differently! Differences are okay! 
  7. See obligations as opportunities. I know many people see the obligatory cemetery visit or the neighborhood caramel delivery as must-dos during the holiday season. But remember, you have a choice! You get to choose!  Instead of seeing dinner at Grandma’s as an obligation for you to go, try to see it as an opportunity.
  8. Let it go! If you have been wronged or irritated by your sister-in-law in the past, and then you go into interactions holding onto those grievances this holiday season, you will find more evidence to feel irritated with her. You will find whatever you look for. So instead of looking for reasons to support your view that she is annoying, go in and look for ways to connect with her. (This advice does not just pertain to the holiday season!)

The best and most relieving tip I have heard for dealing with holiday stress is to simply sit back and observe during your get-togethers. Treat your gathering as a movie you are going to watch. This takes away so much pressure you may feel to look or act or respond a certain way, and it frees you up to be present. Just observe your family instead of reacting to everyone. This will free you up to be neutral and enjoy the night.

Family members push each other’s buttons and this makes the holidays tricky! This does not mean you should avoid gatherings or go with a sour attitude. Instead, it simply means that there are certain things you can do to set yourself up for success. Simplify when you are hosting, stick with people that put you at ease, prepare yourself, be careful with your conversations, accept your differences, and just go ane have fun. You got this. Merry Christmas!

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.


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Melissa Cluff, MS, LMFT, CSAT

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.