Christmas is a time for family, but that doesn’t mean it’s without stress. Artwork from Wellcome Library, London

Some tips on keeping holidays peaceful

By  Lisa M. Petsche, Catholic Register Special
  • December 4, 2017
The Christmas season is a hectic time and staying sane — not to mention enjoying this time of the year — is even more of a challenge for those who don’t get along well with their extended family.

Every family has dysfunction, of course, because no member is perfect. But some families are prone to more interpersonal tension than others, due to diverse personalities, circumstances, values and lifestyles among members.

The following is some advice on how to cope with the almost inevitable stress inherent when relatives get together for the holidays. It can also apply to events involving co-workers or other sizeable groups of people.


Make it a point to practise self-care at this time of the year. Eat healthy foods, make time for exercise and get adequate sleep. Allow plenty of time to get ready for a family event so you are relaxed and feel your best.

Conjure up compassion for relatives who emanate negativity, bearing in mind that they are unhappy individuals. Set realistic expectations about family members’ behaviour.

The narcissist, non-stop talker or chronic complainer is not going to change. Plan to steer clear of them if possible, otherwise limit the amount of time you spend with them. 

Give yourself a pep talk in advance. Reassure yourself that you are up to the challenge of gracefully handling a few hours with anyone.

If necessary, approach things as if you have a role in a play and, of course, must stay in character.

If you are particularly anxious about a gathering, invite a friend along for support. Aim to cut your visit short as a last resort. Plan something to look forward to afterwards, like visiting your favourite café or watching a seasonal movie.


Avoid consuming alcohol; otherwise, limit yourself to one or two drinks. Disinhibition can cause you to say things you may regret.

Practise good listening skills. Pay attention, don’t interrupt and ask open-ended questions. Be conscious of your non-verbal language, keeping your posture open (avoid crossing your arms), making eye contact and nodding periodically. This will help you to come across positively.

Show courtesy toward everyone. When you can’t manage any more politeness towards a particular individual, find a reason to excuse yourself and move on.

Give people the benefit of the doubt when you wonder if they are being sarcastic or condescending. Use humour to defuse tension.

Count to 10 and refuse to take the bait when someone tries to one-up you or goad you into an argument. Instead, adopt a “stupid and cheerful” demeanour — signature advice from the late Dr. Joy Browne, syndicated radio host and clinical psychologist.

Stay away from sensitive or controversial topics and change the subject if others raise them.

Engage relatives positively by reminiscing about pleasant times or inquiring about something meaningful to them, such as their children or grandchildren, work, a hobby or a recent vacation. 

Breathe deeply if you find yourself getting stressed. If that doesn’t help, head to the restroom or step outside, to compose yourself.

If you keep in mind that you can’t change anyone’s behaviour except your own, and that it’s within your power to be civil and even kind, you will make it through seasonal gatherings without losing your composure or damaging relationships.

(Petsche is a registered social worker and a freelance writer specializing in relationships and family life.)

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