Family Relations at Holiday Gatherings


Nancy Bergeron, RPsych | [email protected]

The Holiday Season is upon us. Most likely, less restrictions this year will be bringing many families back together for celebrations. Does the thought of this send anxiety and dread throughout your being?

Family gatherings can breed ongoing emotional wounds. Dr. L Felder has found that about 3/4 of us have at least one family member who annoys us. Why is it that the same minor jabs and annoying tics that are harmless coming from our friends prompt epic screaming matches when uttered by relatives? Is there something about our family, or something about the holidays that’s especially irritating?

I’ve put together a little crash course on how to show up differently this year. All it takes is for one person to make some adjustments to create a positive ripple throughout.


  • Criticism: This is attacking the character or personality of the other person. The “I’m right and you’re wrong”, “You always drink too much”, “You never talk to me when we are with your family”, “Why are you so mean to the kids all the time”. Antidote – Soften your approach: “I feel… about what (not who)…I need…”. Be polite…give appreciation.
  • Defensiveness: This is protecting ourselves, defending our innocence against a perceived attack. “It’s not my fault I didn’t buy the eggnog, I was busy all day”. Defensiveness can also come through cross complaining. It’s dishing it out as much as you get. It’s meeting criticism with criticism. “I only overspent the Secret Santa limit because you always try to show me up with the fancy desert you bring”. Antidote – Own a part of the truth of the statement: “You’re right, I was responsible for getting the eggnog. I’ll run out and get some now”.
  • Contempt: Is putting ourselves on a higher plane, or a place of superiority. Contempt is name-calling, hostile humor, sarcasm, and mockery. It can be expressed through body language, tone of voice, loud sighs, sneering, or rolling eyes. Antidote – Soften your approach: State your feelings and needs, listen to understand, and show appreciation to the other.
  • Stonewalling: Is the silent treatment. It is the flight not the fight. Criticism and contempt are met with silence and disengagement. It may feel like the stonewaller always “wins” because we are checked out. The stonewaller feels that we are avoiding conflict, but we are actually conveying disapproval, distance, separation, and disconnection to the other person. Antidote – Step away to self-sooth: Offer to run to the store for a last-minute item, go outside for some fresh air and once we are feeling less agitated, we can return.

Managing Expectations:

  • Negotiate: “Hey mom, you know how holidays are always so stressful? This year, let’s sit down right now and write a list of everything we are doing to do, and decide who will do it”.
  • Simplify: There is such a thing as frozen cookie dough. Give the same hostess gift to everyone. Buy gift cards. Cut corners. No one will notice…they’re too overwhelmed themselves.
  • Get Over Yourself: You cannot expect your partner to stay up until 3 am building toys. Why? They’re not insane. They are not under the same pressures that make them worry that the other parents will judge them if they don’t get it completed. Worry is about us trying to maintain our status in the social media community, not about what’s good for the family or our own mental health. So, we need to listen when someone says the wreaths don’t need to be made by hand for that perfect photo.
  • Self Reflect: I’m not saying some relatives aren’t lazy or annoying, but really think about why they may have trouble doing their part. Maybe they’ve had financial issues, stress or infidelity in their relationship, or a suicidal teen they have been struggling to keep safe. Ask yourself how you think you would show up if these were some of your private challenges?

Maybe, it’s better to ratchet down our expectations and soften our communications to have a true family celebration, rather than suffer through another year of resentments and disappointments. Remember, you had the last 11 months to seek out professional guidance on how to manage these sometimes difficult family gatherings. It’s not like anything just magically changes in the off months. Wishing all of you a Merry Christmas/Holiday and good mental health in the New Year!