Getting together at the holidays is a treat for many families, but for some, it’s a time of added stress and conflict.

According to Justin Sanders, LCSW and director of clinical services at The BridgeWay, individuals can sometimes set their expectations for the holidays too high, leading to disappointment when the hectic season doesn’t go as planned. This can, in turn, lead to high stress and times of conflict between family members.

Sanders shared his expert advice on how to make the holiday season more enjoyable and create a more pleasant experience for all involved.

What are good ways to control/lessen holiday stress?

Setting boundaries and limits on what you allow your family to experience during the holidays is always a good approach. Limiting spending, party attendance and the constant demand of activities can really help keep us in control of our schedules. Stress comes when we feel out of control, so those boundaries help maintain our control. I think the only way this happens is through proactive planning.

When tension happens between adult family members, how can they prevent that from trickling down to kids?

As adults, we have the responsibility of teaching and modeling mature social-emotional skills to our children. If we want to keep instances of tension from trickling down to our children, we need to show them what it looks like to handle situations well. Using appropriate, positive coping skills, good communication, and some self-care can help set the example of how to be a mature, well-rounded adult to our children.

When and how should difficult conversations with family members take place?

Difficult conversations with family members should follow the same tenets as other difficult conversations. We should use empathy, direct communication, good listening skills and a heavy helping of humility. Mind the context when you bring up difficult things. Observe what is happening around you (are the kids going wild, is something cooking on the stove, are we about to walk out the door to go to Grandma’s, etc.). Conversations rarely go well when they happen at a time that is otherwise difficult.

Justin Sanders

Also, think about your family norms. If your family members are normally “rug-sweepers,” then directness might be challenging. If your family members are normally “yellers,” then calm communication might feel out of the ordinary or passive. This kind of knowledge and self-reflection could really help a conversation go well.

When is it OK to step away from or not attend family gatherings or other traditions?

It is OK to step away from a family gathering when you know you need to. If you feel like you need to take a “time-out,” allow yourself that freedom ... Hopefully, after you’ve had a moment away to process and take a breath, you can find ways to forgive, accept, give grace and move forward.

What's something parents/families can do to prevent new tensions or problems from developing?

I always tell my young children that the only person we can control is ourselves. I think that is true here. We can’t control others in our family, but we can control how we react and respond to things they do/say/think. As tensions arise ... we have a choice of how to respond. Addressing problems in ways that meet the specific needs of ourselves and others can be difficult and a lot of work, but the work is worth it. Some tips I like to live by are to not take things too personally, not take myself too seriously, and to look at things optimistically.