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Nov. 28, 2023

Ask the expert: 5 tips for emotionally healthy holiday gatherings

The holidays are considered a time for making memories with family. The last few weeks of the year are supposed to be filled with happiness: playing games and laughing with relatives from out of town, baking cookies with parents and siblings, picking out thoughtful gifts and watching smiles erupt as loved ones open them.

However, just because the holidays come around doesn’t mean the complexities of family dynamics disappear. For many, spending time with family simultaneously brings excitement and dread.

Elizabeth Dorrance Hall posing outdoors.
Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, associate professor of communication and director of MSU's Family Communication and Relationships Lab.

Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, associate professor of communication in the Michigan State University College of Communication Arts and Sciences and director of MSU’s Family and Communication Relationships Lab, studies communication processes in close relationships, with a particular focus on family.

Here, Dorrance Hall shares five ways to stay emotionally healthy amid the pressure and stress holiday gatherings can bring.

1. Be honest about the stress you’re under.

Carols, lights and cheery holiday movies all proclaim feelings of joy, but the holidays can be an emotionally fraught time for a lot of people, whether you experience feelings of loneliness, stress or just being busy.

“During the holidays, people have a lot on their minds. This mental tax can make it hard to give your full self to any conversation or experience,” said Dorrance Hall.

When the dinner table conversation shifts from pleasantly reminiscing about shared memories to telling embarrassing stories that you’re sick of hearing, you might be more inclined to have an impulsive response as a result of your built-up stress.

“If someone pushes your buttons and you’re already maxed out on your cognitive load, you’re less able to use what we call ‘cool system emotions,’ where we think rationally and slowly and carefully about our responses,” Dorrance Hall said. “Instead, you might be quicker to respond, more reactive.

Talking about the stress of the holidays with others who can relate may help relieve some pressure, freeing up space to have deeper conversations and be present with family members.

“Self-disclosure is often met with self-disclosure,” she said. “When building and maintaining relationships, vulnerability and trust are key: People feel safe to share how they're really doing if you also are willing to honestly share that with them.”

2. Communicate throughout the year.

A strong, happy, healthy relationship with family isn’t going to be built at one major holiday — it requires effort and should be maintained throughout the year.

“A lot of times, family relationships get deprioritized when schedules are busy and time is tight,” Dorrance Hall said. “It’s easy to prioritize your social circles outside of family because cultural norms say that family is supposed to be there for you no matter what. But if you don’t actively maintain your family ties, you can find yourself in the situation where it feels like you have nothing in common with your family.”

Some people have family members who live far away, so seeing them in person isn’t always feasible. Others make the conscious choice to distance themselves from their biological family and may adopt a chosen family — for example, friends who are like siblings. In both cases, relationships still need to be maintained.

“There’s a lot of pressure to have the perfect holiday,” said Dorrance Hall. “While I think having one day a year to connect in person is a wonderful opportunity, having an enjoyable holiday really comes from connecting all year round, whether it’s in person or via phone, text or video calls.”

When it comes to connecting, it’s more about quality over quantity and really taking the time to get to know your family, biological or chosen.

“Talking to your cousins once per year at your family’s annual December gathering is not enough to make meaningful connections,” Dorrance Hall said.

3. Lean into what you have in common.

Similarity is a key ingredient in building relationships; we are drawn to people who have similar hobbies, interests and tastes as us. This can make holidays hard for people who feel like they don’t have anything in common with their family, mainly because they don’t know what to talk about.

Dorrance Hall encourages people to discuss shared experiences as a means to overcome differences.

“Something really cool about family relationships is that those relationships have existed for a long time, which can help us reconnect,” she said. “Reminiscing on old times — telling stories about loved ones that make everyone smile and laugh — is one way to do this. Remembering the people you all care about and the memories you collectively share can be a great way to connect.”

4. Listen and validate.

Chances are, your entire family isn’t going to agree on the current events or politics – and chances are, someone is going to bring one of these topics up at a holiday gathering.

In such instances, your instinct may be to passionately defend your views, which can result in what ends up being a one-sided conversation.

“A lot of times in those conversations, you’re listening only to make your next point instead of listening to really understand the other person,” Dorrance Hall said. “Going back to the basics about how to be a good listener can be really helpful for those kinds of conversations.”

There’s nothing wrong with arguing for what you believe in, but it’s important to not automatically dismiss a viewpoint you disagree with.

“When we are listening, a really important thing to do is validate the other person’s feelings, beliefs and emotions,” Dorrance Hall said. “Even if you don’t agree with the person, you can  validate their views by recognizing the reasons for their beliefs, asking genuine follow-up questions, giving your undivided attention, and being curious about their experiences.”

The foundation for having healthy tough conversations requires trust, respect and regular communication — not just a one-off interaction each year.

“Talking to a relative we think negatively about because of their different beliefs or opinions once or twice a year makes it hard to build the trust and respect needed for difficult conversations,” Dorrance Hall said.  

5. Have an ally.

Spending time with family over the holidays is complex. You can be happy to see them and grateful for the opportunity to be together, but still feel alone, especially if you don’t share the same values and beliefs as many of your family members.

To cope with this, Dorrance Hall recommends identifying an ally in the family: someone with whom you share similar beliefs and values, and who has been through experiences similar to yours. This person can be a sister, cousin, brother-in-law, parent — anyone you feel like you can vent to or make knowing eye contact with at the dinner table.

“When you feel like you're the only one that has a certain opinion or belief or experience, you can feel very isolated even though you’re surrounded by people who supposedly support you and love you,” Dorrance Hall said. “Having one other person in your family that you can lean on — and that you talk to regularly outside of the holidays — can make holiday get-togethers less stressful and overwhelming emotionally.”

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