Holiday Angst, Part 1: How Not To Get Snowed Under An Avalanche Of Emotions At Your Holiday Family Dinner

This post is the first of three in an "Ask The Expert" Series on holiday emotions. Coren Schwartz, LCSW is a practicing psychotherapist in Westchester County. For more information, visit Do you have a question you'd like Coren to address? Let us know!


The holiday season is filled with the joys of home cooking, gift giving, and the warm glow of seasonal lights. It’s a time for parties and get togethers with friends and family. For some, a family holiday dinner can be like stepping into a time warp… no matter how old you are, the minute you sit at the holiday table, surrounded by your relatives, you fall back into that old pecking order you were once a part of and resume the role you played within your family of origin. Sometimes, this can be a less than pleasurable experience. Perhaps it’s just one person who you dread at your family functions; an uncle who doesn’t share your political beliefs, or the cousin who judges your lifestyle, or a sister who is a life-long competitor. 


When you hear the “jingle bells”, but they are actually the chimes of negative memories of holidays past, it’s a good idea to spend a moment figuring out how to make holiday time with family more pleasurable. Here are some suggestions that may prevent the Ghost of Christmas Past from ruining Christmas Present:

Don’t poison the holiday cookies:


No matter your long-standing relationship with your mother, step-brother or sister-in-law, try to keep it in your past. When you have children involved, let them experience their relatives for themselves, on their own terms. Your children will always love you, and it’s best not to have them feel they need to choose sides when it comes to family drama. 


If Someone is Holding a Candy Cane in Front of You, Don’t Bite!


Families tend to reenact patterns without even realizing it. It’s familiar and comfortable, even if it isn’t that gratifying. Families entice it’s members to play tried and true roles. Everyone knows who the helper of the family is, the trouble-maker, the reserved one, or the scapegoat. If you are pulled into an old role, or if you are provoked into responding in the expected fashion, remember, you have the ability to re-write the script. Catch yourself before reacting. Take a breather. Think of an alternative response than the one your gut may want to go with. By not taking the bait, you can defuse the tension and the outcome of a conversation. 




A little humor goes a long way. If the conversation is taking a provocative turn, infusing a little humor can ease tensions. Telling an amusing pet anecdote,or pulling out those old photo albums from the 80s, can steer the conversation from brow-beating to belly laughs. 


No Posting After Toasting


Social media is a great way to find common ground and support, but not when it comes to venting about your family drama.  Keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself. If you need to express your feelings, try to do so directly to the person who you are in conflict with…. and not in the middle of a family gathering! Just remember that after a toast or two, we may feel more loose-lipped than usual. 


A Christmas Carol of Your Own


You can’t change your family, their beliefs and values. You can’t change the past. The only thing you really can change is your own reactions and thoughts. By being less reactive, you have the power to alter the outcome of a family dinner. It’s in your control to no longer live in Christmas Past, but to really be in Christmas Present, and to carve out joyful Christmas Future’s for yourself and your family in the years ahead. 




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