A Therapist Offers 3 Strategies For Handling Unhealthy Family Dynamics During the Holidays

Unhealthy family dynamics can drag down your holiday spirits. Here's what you can do to buoy your mood.

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | December 26, 2022

Many people find themselves in need of therapy during the holiday season. They say things like:

  • "I feel uncomfortable, even dread, when I'm around certain members of my family. What is wrong with me?"
  • "The elders in my family still tell me what I can or cannot do or wear during family gatherings. Will they ever accept that I'm an adult too?"
  • "I'm anxious that I might be subjected to my family's passive aggressiveness for not fulfilling certain duties that I do not enjoy. How can I keep everyone happy, including myself?"

The holidays are portrayed as a time of joy and cheer, but they can also be incredibly stressful. For many people, holidays with family can bring up complicated emotions and toxic dynamics.

So, how do you handle it? Here, I'll talk about three strategies for navigating difficult family relationships during the holiday season.

#1. Recognize your emotions and set boundaries

When we find ourselves in difficult situations, it's important to recognize our emotions so that we can appropriately respond to them. If you find yourself feeling upset or uncomfortable during a family gathering, take a moment to pause and recognize why those feelings are coming up.

Emotion researcher Arela Agako offers a six-step guide to emotion recognition and regulation.

  1. Make time for your emotions, preferably in a comfortable setting and when you can dedicate a few minutes to it without being interrupted
  2. Notice precisely what the emotion feels like in your body
  3. Try naming the emotion
  4. Reflect on whether the emotion was justified by the situation or whether it came from somewhere else
  5. If the emotion is justified, ask yourself what the emotion is telling you that you need in that moment. Is it finding social support? Practicing self-compassion? Or, something else?
  6. If the emotion isn't justified, ask yourself if there is another way to think of the situation or what you might say to a friend who is in the same situation.

Once you have identified your emotions, set boundaries that will help you manage them. This could mean taking regular breaks throughout the day or walking away from a conversation if it becomes too overwhelming. This also means picking and choosing which holiday festivities you attend.

Remember, it is just as important to communicate these boundaries with your family members as much as setting them. Communication is important to let the other party become aware of your needs and feelings.

#2. Focus on self-care

Self-care is especially important during times of stress. Make time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation such as reading a book, listening to music, or taking a walk outside.

You may even want to consider scheduling self-care activities ahead of time so that you don't forget about them during the busy holiday season.

Challenge yourself to engage in at least a few of these proven lifestyle medicine techniques over the holidays:

  • Speak positively. Find more ways to offer a genuine compliment. Memorize an inspirational text or saying.
  • Move dynamically. Do 30 minutes of moderate exercise or 10,000 steps. Try 20 minutes of guided resistance exercises.
  • Immerse in an uplifting natural environment. Spend 30 minutes in an uplifting natural environment. Wake up early and experience a sunrise.
  • Spread positivity. Do something intentional to show you care. Forgive someone who has hurt you.
  • Eat nutritiously. Eat eight servings of plant-based food. Prepare a high-fiber, plant-based meal with one or more friends.
  • Sleep. Spend eight hours in bed without a device. Spend an evening by firelight with no electronics.

It's also important to remember that it's okay if things don't go according to plan. It's normal for plans and expectations to shift depending on the situation. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself if things don't turn out exactly how you planned.

#3. Find support from other loved ones

If spending time with certain family members feels like a burden, consider finding other sources of support from friends or loved ones who understand where you're coming from.

Having someone else by your side who understands what you're going through makes all the difference in helping us manage difficult emotions and tensions within our families.

Whether it's talking over coffee, attending an event together, or reconnecting via FaceTime, spending quality time with people who offer understanding and support can help us feel more at ease when dealing with challenging family dynamics during the holidays.


The holidays can be wonderful. They can also be emotionally draining. By recognizing our emotions, setting boundaries with family members, practicing self-care activities, and seeking support from other loved ones, we can come out of this holiday season feeling uplifted and rejuvenated.