Mental Health Tips
December 16, 2022

Five Tips for When Being with Family Is Hard

Written by
Sabrina Schoneberg, LCSW
Reviewed by
Updated on
April 30, 2024
Field of bristlegrass plants at dusk with green trees in the background

We’re heading into a time of year that tends to be filled with family functions, which can bring up a wide range of emotions — from joy to dread — for many. If you’re feeling anxious about any upcoming family events this holiday season, here are some tips to think about to help you prepare for them and cope. 

Stop gratitude shaming 

Gratitude is an incredibly powerful and useful tool, and it can also quickly turn into a way of shaming ourselves for our feelings. “Gratitude shaming” statements, which can come from others or ourselves, typically have some implication that we should feel gratitude instead of whatever feeling is coming up for us.

For example, maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the amount of family activities you have planned and you tell yourself you should be grateful to have family to spend time with instead. 

However, it’s important to remember to allow space for multiple things to be true at once. Almost any time we use the word “but,” we can replace it with “and.” For example, “I’m looking forward to dinner, but I’m so exhausted from work” can become “I’m looking forward to dinner, and I’m so exhausted from work.”

We can feel grateful for our families and still feel the many other emotions we experience as humans. If someone else “gratitude shames” you, it can be helpful to remind them that you can be grateful AND whatever else it is you’re feeling.

Cope ahead

Creating a coping plan before we go into an emotionally intense situation can help us make the situation less emotionally taxing. 

Person's hand writing in a journal with a blue pen and a gray coffee mug in the foreground

Start by imagining the situation you will be in:

  • What is the overall picture of the situation in your head?
  • What are the emotions that you might feel? 
  • How would you know that you’re starting to get overwhelmed? 

Think about what might help you get through the situation:

  • When and how can you take breaks?
  • What coping skills can you apply? 
  • Is there someone you can talk to about it so you feel supported?

Rehearse it in your head and imagine applying what you came up with:

  • How might you feel after applying some of your coping skills? 
  • How will you remember this plan? (Writing it down? Putting a reminder on your phone?)
  • How can you take care of yourself after the stressful situation is over?

Check your assumptions

When we spend time with family, we may come in with a lot of preconceived notions of how things are going to go and how people are going to respond. While it can be helpful to plan for feelings that come up and “cope ahead,” it can also be helpful to be open to the possibility that things may be different. 

For example, if you know that your sibling “always responds in a judgmental way,” you might be going into that conversation already having a particular feeling and assumption. Check in with what is happening in the present to make sure you’re not responding to the past.

If it feels hard to do this, it can be helpful to ground yourself by tuning into your senses and asking yourself, “what am I hearing, seeing, or feeling right now?”

Set boundaries

Healthy boundaries allow us to honor ourselves and our needs, support healthy interactions and communication in relationships, and empower us to set limits when needed. 

Think about the boundaries you may want to set with family, or regarding the events you want to attend. Then follow these steps from my colleague Erika Wright-Garcia, LMFT to set it, plan a response, communicate it, and notice the impact. Remember, others may respond to your boundary with gratitude shaming, so remember that it’s okay to feel grateful and whatever else it is you’re feeling at the same time.

Come from a place of empowerment 

Remember what is different now. Our strong reactions often result from the fact that when we were little kids, maintaining a good relationship with parents was a means of survival. 

As an adult, we are automatically less dependent on our parents — we no longer need them to meet our basic needs and we typically have more freedom to walk away if we need to. Whether you take that option or not, knowing that you have it can help you feel more resilient and empowered. 

Every person and every family is different, and not every tip will work for every situation. But I hope that, this year, you can embrace the many complex truths that can exist at the same time.

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