Christmas can be a stressful time. It can be the only time we see certain relatives and one of the only times to get together as a larger group, which can lead to the potential for conflict. We may find ourselves reverting to childhood roles or that old arguments resurface. Throw some alcohol into the mix and it can be a recipe for disaster. If this sounds familiar and you are already dreading getting together with family at Christmas, read on for my tips on how to deal with family stress this Christmas.

How to deal with family stress at Christmas - woman pictured holding a mug with feet up on sofa in front of Christmas tree.

Dealing with family stress at Christmas

1. Manage your expectations

If you believe everything you see on TV, it can seem like everyone else is having an idyllic Christmas with their entire family. However, for many people, Christmas can be full of family stress. You may have challenging relationships with your own family. Adding in partners and their family can make things even more difficult. You can hope for a Christmas miracle that everyone will get along. However, it may be more helpful to manage your expectations. Acknowledging that there might be certain situations or individuals you find it difficult to be with means you can take steps to prepare for those situations.

2. Think about what you want to do

If it was up to you and only you, and no-one would be offended, what would you actually want to do for Christmas? Even if it is not something you can make a reality, thinking about what you really want can help. You don’t have to do everything exactly how everyone else wants it. If there is a vast gulf between what you feel you should be doing at Christmas and what you would actually like to do, there may be a less stressful compromise somewhere in the middle. For example, if everyone wants to come to you, but you’d rather not cook, a compromise could be going out for a meal but agreeing to host drinks afterwards.

3. Set boundaries

Whilst having realistic expectations of family interactions can be helpful, this doesn’t mean you have to put up with unacceptable behaviour. If certain topics of conversation tend to lead to arguments, you can say upfront you would rather not talk about them. Similarly, if certain relatives are bearable in small doses, it is OK to only agree to seeing them for a set amount of time. Thinking about what you really want can help you to set boundaries. If you’d rather just spend Christmas Day with your immediate household, that’s OK. This article gives more advice on setting flexible boundaries at Christmas.

4. It’s OK to let go of traditions

There are some traditions you may really enjoy and want to keep hold of. However, there may be things you find yourself doing year after year just because you have always done them. People and families change, and it is OK for your traditions to change too. For example, you might have always gone to your parents’ for Christmas, but as you get older you might prefer to stay at your own home. You might have always had a full turkey dinner, but if you’d rather have lasagne, there is no rule that says you can’t!

5. Look after yourself

We are constantly reminded to give to others at Christmas, but many of us forget to give to ourselves. It can be exhausting seeing family, preparing food, buying presents and so on. When we are busy it is so easy to let go of self-care. However, when you are feeling tired and drained, you may find yourself getting more easily annoyed. Planning in activities that restore you can help you have the energy to navigate this period. This could be watching your favourite TV show, going to an exercise class or taking yourself out for a coffee.

6. Create opportunities for space

Even if you really love spending time with your family, extended time together without everyday distractions can be challenging. Without work, school or other activities, we lose time to ourselves that we may take for granted, like during our commute. If you are finding yourself getting overwhelmed by social interactions over Christmas, it can help to plan in some time for yourself. This might be just going to your bedroom and letting others know you are having an hour to yourself. Or, if you feel the need for some space from your environment as well, this could be going for a walk or popping to the shop.

7. Speak to someone

Having someone outside the family to talk to can be really useful. You can vent and offload without anyone getting offended or repeating what has been said to those involved. You can also get some perspective on your own expectations and gauge how reasonable others’ expectations of you are. It is likely that the person you speak to also has their family stress to deal with, so it can help to know you are not the only one feeling this way.


Christmas is not always the most wonderful time of the year. For many of us, family stress at this time of year can be exhausting. However, having realistic expectations, thinking about what you really want to do and setting boundaries with family can help. It is OK to let go of some traditions and make time for yourself. It can help to speak to someone impartial about how you are feeling. If you would like to find out more about how counselling can help, please get in touch:

Photo by Kuiyibo Campos