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  • Writer's pictureIsabella Maire

Managing Family Dynamics During the Holidays: A Mental Health Perspective on Healthy Communication

family holiday dinner

It's that time of the year again. Holiday lights fill the streets. Hallmark movies start making a comeback. Snow fills the mountains. Every store seems to have the best sale of the year that you don't want to miss. The holidays are coming, and with that comes traditions, family, and friends. You may be stressed about all the presents and how you're going to pay for them. You may also be worried about traveling with little ones. Holiday meals also seem like a hassle to even think about. While the stress of the holidays may be a lot, being around loved ones is the purpose behind it all, yet for some people it may be the most stressful thing about the holidays. For some, the holidays may be a time of painful memories, insensitive family members, and even trauma. Whatever the challenge may be, learning how to manage these family dynamics is one of the greatest acts of self care you can perform for yourself.


How do I set boundaries with my family members?

The idea of setting boundaries towards family members may come off as disrespectful in various cultures. Oftentimes, it can lead to more conflict and resentment in the moment. Regardless of the many reactions that your family members might display, you're not in charge of the way they feel or react towards you. You are only in charge of your own feelings and reactions. Setting boundaries with family members will ultimately change the dynamic of that relationship, and maybe even the dynamic of the whole family.


Setting boundaries can be difficult as the way a family member reacts may still turn out to be hurtful or hostile. Learning how to set boundaries in an empathetic and caring way can still be one of the best things you can do during this holiday season.

Holidays are meant to be enjoyed, but that doesn't mean you need to be around one another 24/7. Pick the activities you find meaning, or are important for you to be around your family and community. Make those a priority and then find the other ways you would like to spend your time


  • Think about them beforehand. You know what it's like to be around with your family members and you know the topics that they might talk about which trigger you. Spend time thinking about those triggers and make a plan on the boundaries that you need to set. You can write them down or even practice saying them with a trusted person.


  • Be clear and direct. When setting a boundary, especially with others who might not be used to it, make sure to be assertive. You can be kind and assertive at the same time, so that way the other person knows that this is something serious and important to you. Setting clear boundaries is another way you can let people know they are important to you, but so are you own feelings and needs.


  • Try to see where your family member may be coming from.Be curious, getting to know where your family is coming from can also help you learn more about them and in the end BETTER the relationship Family members aren't perfect, and often what they think they might be doing out of love, can actually turn out to be hurtful. Make sure to listen to them and try to see their point of view on things. Doing so can help them know that you're not setting boundaries to be disrespectful.


  • Respond with empathy towards their reactions. Once you set boundaries, you aren't in charge of the way your family members might react, but you are in charge of your own reaction. In escalated situations, becoming escalated yourself will only make it worse, but responding calmly and explaining why you have set the boundary could help. In some cases, you might just need to give your family member time and space to process the boundary as it will change the dynamic between you and that family member. 

family talking to one another

What if I don’t want to spend time with my family over the holidays?

There may be some cases where going back home is still tough to do. In cases of abuse or past truma, this can be commont. Culturally, many people might expect you to easily forgive and forget the trauma caused by your family members. It's ok to feel that might not be possible. Any type of abuse is difficult, but especially abuse within the family can be more difficult to work through, especially since human beings have an innate sense and pressure to trust that their family will love and care for them. 

An article published by the National Library of Medicine pointed out that a person’s well-being is directly linked to the relationships that they have with their family, especially the relationship with their parents1. If this relationship has been severed as a result of years of abuse, the holidays may become especially stressful and hard to manage. In some cases, it may never be safe to go back to that place. 

Healing should be your priority. Often that takes time and space away from people and places that are part of your abuse history. In some rare cases, relationships can be built back up with change coming from the instigator. That isn’t always a gaurantee of happening, and you  can still move forward and heal.  Forgiveness does not mean you ever need to trust those who have had a hand in hurting you, but you can find for yourself that inner peace we all look for.

family or friends jumping in snow

Reach out for professional help 

As we have discussed and talked about in the past, this can be a difficult time of year.  If you know of anyone who might be spending the holidays alone, consider reaching out to them and inviting them to participate in your own celebrations. 

For those who have strained relationships with family or loved ones, or feel any other type of distress outside of the normal holiday stress, consider reaching out to a therapist. A therapist can help you in processing the many emotions that may come up during this time. If needed, they can help you in processing trauma and  help you in your journey to heal.  They can also help you in learning and practicing  how to set boundaries with others when necessary. 

Reach out to a therapist at Xenia counseling! They are more than willing to help you during this time!


This blog was written by Alessandro Gemio, edited by Izzy Maire & Hailey Maire, LCSW, and reviewed/approved by Taylor Madsen, LMFT, and Hailey Maire, LCSW. 

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