How To Survive The Holidays With Family The holidays can be joyful and celebratory. They can also cause stress and unearth familial trauma. Life Kit talks to Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist, to equip you with some strategies that will help you minimize holiday stress that stems from family.
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Holiday Survival Guide: Family Style

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Holiday Survival Guide: Family Style

Holiday Survival Guide: Family Style

Holiday Survival Guide: Family Style

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Shannon Wright for NPR
Make a game plan for how to handle potentially stressful situations with family members this holiday season.
Shannon Wright for NPR

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This story comes from Life Kit, NPR's podcast with tools to help you get it together. To listen to this episode, play the audio at the top of the page or subscribe. For more, sign up for the Life Kit newsletter.

When the halloween candy goes on sale and the dulcet tones of Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" are piping out of every store speaker, it can mean GO TIME for some folks. But there are also a lot of people who get a very familiar pit in their stomach when the holidays roll around. Holidays can mean exhaustion, confronting familial trauma, managing your uncle's opinions and all kinds of overload.

We asked Life Kit listeners for their trickiest situations around family and the holidays and invited Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist, to offer advice. Here are some excerpts of the letters we received along with some advice that will hopefully help you weather this holiday season with strength if the cheer and goodwill are hard to find. (And don't forget to listen to the full episode so you can hear more questions and all of the wisdom!)

We're only using first names to identify the people who wrote in with questions, since their inquiries involve family relationships and are sensitive in nature.


Tl;dr Bah Humbug

"The message that I hear around the holidays is that it's all about family. But I don't have that. It becomes stressful to try and find something I can do to fill that for Thanksgiving and for Christmas which seems to last for a full two months. Also people will say that one of the great things about the holidays is that there is a feeling of love for strangers and our neighbors. But I feel the opposite way! I feel completely alienated. I hate people during the holiday season. They're awful. Have you ever tried to go shopping? They're rude in the parking lots and in the lines. It's all awful." — Tory

This letter is so relatable and speaks to a very real alienation and loneliness that can come up around the holidays. For any number of reasons — if you're estranged or far away from family, if you don't celebrate the holiday or even if the whole thing simply rubs you the wrong way — it can be that much more difficult to watch everyone else operating at that egg-nog-for-breakfast-inject-candy-canes-into-my-bloodstream level.

Andrea's advice is simple: find a way to derive your own meaning from the holidays. "Maybe you can derive meaning from the holidays as a time that you kind of cocoon into yourself and you do let yourself be a little bit frustrated with things but you treat yourself better," she advises. "So many times the pressure and the alienation comes from this idea that we're supposed to feel a certain way." Dr. Bonior recommends volunteering or even scheduling a brunch with a friend who gets it and creating a tradition around that. "The more that we can feel in control that, hey we're we're choosing this, the more soothing it can be and the less left out we'll feel because we're actively choosing what to do with our time." So go ahead and take on the yoga challenge or bake 45 different kinds of muffins or host an anti-holiday party if that's what suits you.


My Family Doesn't Accept Me

"I came out as a trans woman to my family several months ago and I haven't had a holiday with my extended family yet. I know my mom is coming around but my dad isn't and no extended family knows. I'm worried about whether I'll have to pretend to be a boy for a week or if I'll even be welcome at all. I'm dreading constantly being misgendered and treated like the nephew grandson I always presented to them rather than who I actually am. I'm dreading disguising myself just to make my family happy at my own expense."

— Vivian

This letter is heartbreaking, and very representative of many of the letters in the Life Kit inbox where a listener expresses their anxiety and dread at not being accepted by their families. Dr. Bonior's advice in this case is to find an ally and have an exit strategy. She says that this letter writer might consider sitting out this holiday and simply Skyping in for a few minutes to mitigate some of the trauma, but says that it's promising that mom is coming around. "You need an ally to help you be understood and eventually, in an ideal world, her mom can work on the other family members too," Dr. Bonior says.

An escape plan is also a big recommendation in this case, whether it involves actually taking a break from the event — by going on a walk or calling a supportive friend — or coming up with a few safe topics to bring up in case a conversation goes off the rails. "Give yourself permission to change gears. Sometimes, that permission is hard to come by. We feel guilty about it but really you need to protect your own emotional health and you deserve that."


This Holiday Glorifies Genocide

"My husband and I are white and adopted our son from South America many years ago. Last year, at 30, he embraced his native South American heritage and spends all of Thanksgiving in mourning and protest for the horrible things that have been perpetrated on native peoples. While I sympathize I view Thanksgiving as time to spend with friends and family to enjoy a good meal and to socialize. He has also become vegan which puts lots of pressure on hosts to accommodate his needs. I want to be respectful of his very real concerns and choices but the rest of my family is not understanding and feels resentment that he doesn't just fit in. If I side with my son, the rest of the family suffers. If I side with the rest of my family, my son suffers." — Laura

A lot of holiday family gatherings will have at least one person attending who doesn't really feel like participating for any number of reasons. Dr. Bonior says that the way to solve this conundrum is to make space for that person to address their concerns. "It sounds like there's a false dichotomy here I've got to side with my family or with my son when in reality I would think OK how can we honor some of his beliefs and and ask to incorporate it." If people roll their eyes when your son speaks to the table about the atrocities committed against native people, go ahead and let them Dr. Bonior says. "I would start with asking the son how can I take you out of a box here and actually hear more about the nuance of what you do believe in and how that could be incorporated into the day," she says. Listening to one another despite differences in tradition and opinion is something that most folks will likely toast to (and if they don't, hopefully they'll at least sit through it respectfully.)


Everyone's Needs Are More Important Than Mine

"Experience has shown me that someone always forgets something important. So I have just maintained the sanity as much as possible by planning everything. I make a checklist and just start marking things off so that nothing is left behind that is important in keeping the peace on the road trip. Then there's the issue of traveling with an 85-year-old man who has to urinate almost before we pull out of the driveway, and together with my husband who is not the most understanding person about the needs of an 85-year-old man. Then I have two sons and a daughter. My daughter's needs, equally, are as important as my 85-year-old father. She also needs to go to the restroom often enough that it makes my husband crazy. So, there's that battle.There's the battle of arriving, of course, with peace and safely. The last person on the list for any of these road trip necessities is myself. — Yolanda

This listener has really hit the nail on the head of what the holidays can be in some families: a time when everyone in a very, very large group is putting their needs on one (or a few) of the family's matriarchs who are struggling to do a TON of emotional, physical and mental labor in the interest of the holidays. Dr. Bonior says this is very common. "I hear this from so many women in particular, it's certainly not exclusive to them," she says.

Her advice for this listener is to ask her family to support her. "It's a matter of maybe asking more from her family, and I imagine she thinks that they're not going to come through for her," Dr. Bonior says. "That could be a problem, but if it is a problem then I truly see it as an issue that is worthy of being addressed because what's the alternative? She does this every single year?" Dr. Bonior says that the exhaustion and overextended nature of this listener is going to ultimately lead to resentment, which is bad for everyone. So, if this resonates with you as you're surveying a kitchen that looks like a crime scene for dishes, or if you're having anxiety dreams about wrapping paper, remember that you *can* ask your family for support. Asking your partner to show up for you can be especially difficult, but go ahead and trust Dr. Bonior on this one: "Maybe she's bought 19 gifts for the past 10 years and made sure everything was perfect and ironed the tablecloths and made things festive. But now she's ready to simplify. She'll probably actually be a lot happier and maybe everyone else will too."


Here are a few takeaways that can help you through tough situations with family this holiday season:

1. Find your own meaning for the holiday season.

2. If you know it's gonna be hard: find an ally and have an escape plan.

3. If someone is upset about something, make space for them to share their concerns.

4. Ask for the support you need.

Listen and subscribe to all of Life Kit's episodes here and make sure to get all of Dr. Andrea Bonior's advice in our full episode, where you'll hear some questions we didn't cover in this story.