Holiday Family Stress

Maybe it’s Facebook’s fault, with its constant feed of friends’ seemingly perfect family moments. Or Pinterest is to blame, giving us an impossible holiday standard to achieve. But somewhere between orchestrating elaborate Elf on the Shelf hijinks and planning an entire Christmas feast, we often underestimate just how downright stressful this time of year can be.

With parents off work, kids on winter break, relatives to visit and countless things to wrap, cook and clean in preparation, it’s no wonder the “magic” of the season often doesn’t live up to our snow-draped, candle-lit expectations. The rapid pace of the holidays can magnify normal everyday stress, and disagreements over how your family should spend its time and money can easily put a damper on the festivities. “We all have these idyllic images of the holidays, but your kids are not going to remember how beautiful the tree looked or how great the pumpkin pie tasted if everything turns into a family fight,” says Ashley Albertson, a social worker at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Barbara Hummel, a counselor and mediator in Hyde Park who works with families, advises couples to set their intentions for the holiday season ahead of time. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to teach my children about holidays and giving and receiving?’” she says. “Start with deciding what values are important to you and be willing to prioritize them. While some of your values may be competing with others, this gives you a chance to become clear about what is most important to you, and it will shape how you spend your time.”

That idea includes not spreading you and your family so thin that you end up rushing from place to place without being able to make meaningful connections with those closest to you. Prioritizing your holiday time means learning how to say no gracefully, Hummel stresses.

Worried about butting heads with your mother-in-law or dealing with an outspoken uncle? Even though we love them, spending time with relatives can send our blood pressure skyrocketing. Here are some expert tips for handling common stressful scenarios this holiday season.


Every year, your mother-in-law expects your family to travel several hours to her house on Christmas Eve and wake up to open presents in their home. You have accommodated her wishes for the past four years, but your children are growing up fast, and you would really like to have a Christmas morning spent in your own home. This is a conversation you have been dreading with her because you know it won’t go over well.

Albertson: Being realistic about what you want out of your holiday as a family comes with the idea of saying “no.” If driving several hours to see grandma means you’ll be stressed and your kids will have to spend their holiday in the car, it may not be worth it. It’s okay to be protective of yourself and your children in a situation like this. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win any popularity contests, but there are lots of different options for seeing relatives during the holidays.

Hummel: You might pose the idea that for this year, you have decided to do something different. Explain your desire to have your children have the opportunity to wake up in their own beds, and remind your in-laws how valuable your memories are of holiday mornings. The grandparents might come visit this year and have the experience of being with the grandchildren in their home, or another option would be to use technology and Skype the grandparents while opening gifts. Use the problem to become creative in finding alternatives and accomplishing what is important to your family. Remember that one year of changing traditions does not set anything in stone.


A relative gives a present to your child that you don’t approve of (think violent video games for your son or makeup for your 10-year-old daughter). To complicate things, your child loves the present.

Hummel: One area that parents can focus on with their children is to be a grateful and gracious receiver. Parenting is a process of role modeling. If a gift is received that feels inappropriate or you don’t like, find a way to say “thank you” anyway. There is plenty of time to discuss with your child that you do not feel that the content of the gift is age appropriate. Since your child will likely feel disappointed, you can explore the alternatives of other games that might be fun and make a return after the holiday.

Sarah Painer (social worker for the Division of Social Services at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital): This situation has the potential to be a teachable moment for your kids. Offer them some options like, “We can keep this gift and you can have it when you’re old enough in a couple of years, or we can take the gift back to the store and find something more appropriate.”

Albertson: It’s okay to tell family members to run gifts by you and suggest some gift ideas. If your child does get a present you don’t approve of, maybe that present gets lost or packed in someone else’s bag. I remember getting the movie “Grease” when I was little, and my mom didn’t like the message that this woman had to change everything about herself for a man. So that movie magically disappeared after Christmas was over.


At a family get-together, an uncle loudly starts to voice his political or religious views, which are very different from the values promoted in your family. Your kids are listening with rapt attention, looking like they expect you to say something in response.

Hummel: When politics or religion come up, there is always a chance for humor. You might say to your uncle, “Well someone had to open the can of worms called religion and politics! I feel like it is a most uncomfortable dinner table topic because it is guaranteed to spark disagreement. Not that I don’t appreciate a lively conversation, but I might suggest that we focus on topics that aren’t quite so divisive?” Thank your uncle for sharing his opinion, as all opinions are valid, but not everyone has to be in agreement. Suggest that someone offer a topic that everyone might enjoy talking about together, or take control and assertively move on to another topic while you have the floor.

Painer: This is a great time for a distraction! “Hey kids, let’s go look at the Christmas tree” or “Have you seen all the snow?” You can also enlist another adult to go intervene. The holidays aren’t the time to be talking politics.


Your family has discussed a dollar limit for exchanging gifts. You really need to follow this guideline, but your sister keeps going way overboard on what she buys for your family, making you feel bad for sticking to your budget.

Albertson: That’s your sister’s prerogative, and if she gets snappy about it, just explain that you agreed on a budget and you’re sticking to it. Holiday spending can cause a lot of stress. If you and your spouse have decided to put away a certain amount for presents, stick to it and you’ll have a less stressful time afterward. You do not have to live up to other people’s financial expectations.


You’ve recently learned that your son is allergic to gluten and nuts and have expressed these dietary restrictions to your mom and dad who are hosting the holiday dinner. As you all sit down to eat and you carefully select appropriate dishes for your son, your dad makes a loud proclamation that food allergies in kids these days is overblown hype. Everyone appears uncomfortable and they look at you to see how you will respond.

Hummel: All opinions and perspectives are just that – opinions and perspectives. We can always respectfully disagree without making the other person wrong or getting in a defensive argument.  Begin by thanking your dad for sharing his opinion and bringing up the topic. You can explain that you are in the process of learning and understanding what your pediatrician is teaching you, and you can explain that although you agree that any topic can get overblown, you are trying to respect your children’s doctor and follow their suggestions.

Although spending time with family can be a highlight of the holidays, it can also have its share of uncomfortable situations and unintended hurt feelings. Try to stay focused on the positive moments of the season that make it special for your family and do your best to keep the unpleasant ones from turning you into a Grinch. New Year’s is just around the corner, which might be the perfect time to make a few resolutions about how to handle next year’s holiday!

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