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Holiday Headaches: Navigating Conflict & Stress During the Holidays


By Kristy Warren


Do you struggle with relatives butting heads over Christmas dinner, or dread the stress of the holiday hustle? The holidays are a unique source of stress and conflict. Extended families often gather together, creating more opportunities for anxiety and tension. 


Join us as Laurel Behavioral Health psychologist Jerry Cerrone shares how we can tackle challenging situations and feelings to have a happier, healthier holiday season.




The holidays can be a tricky time to navigate, especially when we’re struggling or anticipate a hectic, trying holiday. While we often look forward to visiting with family, big holiday gatherings can also be a source of dread and conflict.


The first key question to ask yourself is why are you dreading it? For some, the dread may be wrapped up in a recent loss: a death in the family, a family falling out, or a divorce. For others, big groups may be a challenge to their introverted nature and create a feeling of awkwardness around family they rarely see.


For many, stress is tied to cost and effort—so much to do and buy, a fear of not putting on the perfect party, concerns over your budget, or resentment from all of the planning falling to you with little to no help from others.



Once you’ve determined the why of your holiday dread, you can proactively tackle your concerns to make for a happier, healthier holiday for yourself and others. If the holiday hustle leaves you exhausted and stressed, know it’s OK not to make it to every holiday party and to ask for help hosting yours.


Focus on how you can connect with those you care about. If gatherings you'd like to attend conflict or the idea of a whole day together is too much, try facetiming or skyping with the family gathering for a few minutes to share in the festivity while preserving some downtime.


If cost is a concern, set spending limits, try gift exchanges to more evenly spread out cost among attendees, or elect to give your presence instead of presents—create opportunities for spending time together or give acts of kindness.



If someone has gone through a recent divorce or separation, it may leave you feeling tongue-tied or tempted to walk on egg shells, but don’t assume ignoring the situation is best. Let them know ahead of time that you’re available for support and to talk if they want, but also respect that a holiday party may not be the best time to do so.


If you’re currently working through an issue, loss, or separation of your own, it can help to have an exit plan in place should the festivities become too much—be it a quick walk, a call to a friend, or leaving the gathering early.


Loss is another common source of tension at family gatherings. If people are reluctant to talk about the death, it can create the proverbial “elephant in the room.” Not talking about the loss can send the wrong message that you are avoiding acknowledging the person who passed and the pain it’s caused. Instead of ignoring it, try sharing how you feel or offer a listening ear. You may find others are feeling the same, and it can create an opportunity to bond together by sharing stories about the lost loved one.



Previous unresolved conflicts can loom large over family gatherings or company office parties. If a previous family conflict or coworker dispute has you dreading the big day, talk candidly with those involved ahead of the celebration about your concerns. Address the topic directly. Making space for the discussion outside of the holidays can help keep the big event more peaceful. If relatives or coworkers still butt heads despite your best efforts, it may be time to re-evaluate the invitation list.


Emotional intelligence or “reading the room” can go a long way in preventing or de-escalating a family conflict. Stay tuned to how you and your guests are feeling and behaving. If family traveled a great distance to visit, they may need a nap or wind down period before they’re ready for a barrage of questions and activities. Keep a careful eye on things like alcohol intake or competitive holiday activities, too, as it can escalate tense situations in some people.



If you or someone you love is struggling with holiday stress, anxiety, depression, or loss, you're not alone. Laurel Behavioral Health is here to help by providing confidential support and guidance. For more information or to make an appointment, call 570-723-0620.


For more information on Laurel Behavioral Health, click to visit our mental health services page.