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Family, Politics and the Holidays: 6 Tips to Avoid Family Stress and Enjoy the Holiday Season

The Holidays are here again, and this time of year often brings on a variety of emotions. Perhaps you feel excited to see family you don't see often; or perhaps holidays elicit feelings of stress and anxiety. We long for a holiday season filled with love, joy, and peace, creating memories filled with old and new traditions, but why is that so elusive for so many?

The Holiday Season is often busy, full of events and obligations. It may bring out the best in some; it can bring out the worst in others. For example, that person at the party that quickly divides the room by bringing up a highly debated and heated topic, such as current political issues! If this is your experience, then you're not alone. Many family relationships are becoming casualties of a toxic political environment where family members experience uncomfortable and nasty political arguments or avoid one another at the same gathering. Some family members are even cutting off lifetime relationships.

If you desire peace with family traditions and healthy family bonds, preparation before seeing your family may help. Here are six ways to do healthy prep.

6 Tips For a Stress-Free and Joyful Holiday Season With Your Family

Tip #1: Plan and Focus on Healthy Change.

Before you leave home, remind yourself that lasting change takes time and practice. Send yourself a text reminder too. So, when that Brother-in-Law or Uncle begins to stir the pot and debate, and you find yourself getting anxious, these two fact checks will help:

  • "It's not possible for me to control others; I CAN change how I respond."

  • "Regardless of history, nobody can truly control me without my consent.”

If you do feel that old negative family pattern creeping into your day, try the following for less stress and stay more mindful:

  • Excuse yourself and help in the kitchen. Get creative with preparing and cooking the beautiful meal your family is lucky to enjoy.

  • Take an interest in the children, and offer to play a game or read them a book.

  • Seek and focus on talking with a family member you find interesting or enjoyable.

  • Go outside and smell the season, enjoy nature and take a short walk.

  • Walk into a private room, and if you need to, “phone a friend”. :) 

  • Ask your host if you can bring board games or holiday trivia. Your host may enjoy the distraction of others asking when the meal is ready, and you may start a new tradition.

  • Walk into the bathroom and listen to a 5-minute podcast. Or, use an App to listen to soothing sounds, like the ocean or raindrops.

Tip #2: Avoid Negative Talk and Time With Negative People.

If a family member goes down a negative path with hurtful gossip or heated topics like politics, you may feel triggered and want to react / defend quickly. It's helpful to remember you have choices at that moment. You can choose to engage in a healthy way with a neutral response rather than react defensively with an immediate snarky reaction. You can choose to excuse yourself from the conversation, either physically by leaving the room, or relationally by setting kind boundaries; e.g., “hey, I’d appreciate it if we talk about something else. I’m here to enjoy friends and family, and this topic is actually not enjoyable for me.”  If that doesn’t work for whatever reason, just smile and say “excuse me - I need to get some fresh air”. The point is don’t engage in negativity!

Responding vs. reacting to negative talk is empowering, and will always feel better and lead to more peace and a healthier for you in the long run. Again, it takes practice to stay mindful and override the negative talk around you because negative talk can also be an addiction. Making that effort to remain positive will lead to the outcome for your growth, which is well worth the effort. A response will ensure you operate within your value system rather than getting hijacked into reactivity. You can do this with both verbal language or even body language.

Tip #3: Learn How Your Brain Works to Manage Your Triggers.

Your brain stem does a great job of keeping you alive. However, it’s a pretty crude judge of real versus perceived danger. Your snarky sibling is (hopefully) not actually dangerous. Yet, your amygdala signals for the release of adrenaline as if a deadly snake crawled in. Even though you don't need that cortisol-induced fight or flight reaction, it can happen involuntarily.  Be mindful of how your body attempts to protect you in a perceived danger vs. a real one.

If you're feeling triggered, before you react, see if you can:

STOP: take in a full, deep breath. Then exhale, activating your parasympathetic nervous system, restoring calm. Take several deep breaths until you can feel a little more in control of your choices.

  • Make a cup of tea or drink a full glass of water.

  • Go outside and search out unique items you've never noticed.

  • Slow your mind down and continue to slow your breathing.

  • Take an inward moment to picture yourself 50K feet above the environment to view the dysfunctional pattern. You might even think of how you'd advise a friend to respond. Taking that moment can provide clarity.

Tip #4: Is Conflict Bad? The Reality of Conflict

  • Conflict is neither good nor bad; it just means you see things differently. What is toxic is fighting. We can disagree, but it doesn’t mean we have to fight.

  • Conflict is a chance to become curious and discover how others view the world. (Like a journalist.) Conflicts become healthier when we can apply curiosity as a replacement for judgment.

  • Conflict is an opportunity to learn about another person's perspective.

Tip #5: What To Do When Conflict Happens - Let's Break it Down.

  • If a conflict occurs near you, it's vital to remind yourself that you aren't in charge of what's happening all around you. (You aren't the party police.)

  • You aren't responsible for creating or repairing your family dynamic.

  • You can decide if you want to respond or react.

  • If something happens that strikes a negative chord, take a deep breath and tell yourself:

    • "Because I feel momentarily triggered doesn't mean I need to react immediately.”

    • "I always have a choice. I can choose to respond calmly rather than react.” Some people wear a rubber band on their wrist or switch wrists for their watch, as a reminder to breathe and make good choices.

Tip #6: Step Up Your Daily Self-Care Routine.

Give yourself extra tender loving care during the Holidays.

  • Practice mindfulness. Rain or shine, go outside in nature and feel, see, hear and smell what surrounds you.

  • Balance negative feelings by listening to inspiring audiobooks.

  • Crank up and enjoy listening to joyful holiday music.

  • Explore something relaxing, like a therapeutic massage, or, a facial. Or a Centering Prayer. We’ll be offering those weekly during Advent.

  • Fill your home with holiday smells of hot cocoa, gingerbread, cinnamon, pine, etc.

  • Try a new skill to strengthen your creativity by painting a Holiday dream picture. What vision comes to you? Be brave and put your ideal picture onto canvas to hang and enjoy.

  • Cook a healthy and nurturing "hygge" meal, and perhaps share with a friend you hold dear.

  • Nestle with a piping cup of hot tea or cocoa and a great book.

  • Take a bath. 

Remember, shifting your listening to a curious ear vs. a judgmental ear to understand fully is essential in family dynamics. By avoiding landmine moments at Holiday gatherings, you'll likely prevent unnecessary hurt and toxicity from damaging a lifetime of loving family relationships. These relationships impact your family bonds for generations to come.

I hope you have a wonderful Holiday Season. I also hope these tips help lessen your stress and make you feel more peaceful during your holidays to focus on human compassion, kindness, and joy!

Jeannie Ingram is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, speaker, and workshop presenter in private practice in Nashville, TN. She has a Bachelors Degree in Psychology, a Masters in Counseling from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy from Capella University. In addition, she is a Clinical Instructor for the International Imago Training Institute and certified to present Getting the Love You Want, Keeping the Love You Find, and Start Right, Stay Connected Imago couples workshops across the Southeast. For more, please go to

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