Top Tips for Dealing with Holiday Family Drama

Ahhhh, the holidays.


Ideally, it’s a time of family togetherness, home-cooked meals, peace, love, and harmony. I hope that, for you, that’s the reality. But for many, the holidays can be associated with painful memories, feelings of guilt, pressure to live up to expectations, and family conflict.


Families can bring out the best and worst in all of us. It’s common for adults to regress around family and revert to old patterns of behavior. Issues you thought you’d worked through in therapy somehow instantly resurface. You get triggered and feel defensive. Your in-laws are overbearing, or you notice your spouse acting differently around them and it drives you crazy.


Every family has its share of problems and quirks. And most families, no matter how dysfunctional, still make a point of getting together for the holidays. So, if the thought of that sends your blood pressure soaring, here are my top tips for dealing with holiday family drama:


Remember that your kids are watching you.


Every smile you fake, every pie you bake, they’ll be watching you.


This is the first tip because I think it’s the most important. However you choose to act (or react) at family gatherings, you’re setting an example for your kids. They’ll see you roll your eyes when Grandpa repeats the same jokes he told last year. They’ll notice how you respond when Grandma critiques your cooking. Show your kids that you can rise above pettiness and provocations, and keep your cool.


Plan your responses ahead of time.

If you know that being in the same room with someone will likely lead to an argument, try to anticipate what he/she will say to you and rehearse some responses that won’t lead you down your usual path. Do something different to change your relational pattern and don’t pick up the gauntlet. The holidays are not the time to discuss past grievances or address relationship troubles. Something as simple as, “Hey, let’s call a truce for today, ok?” may be all that’s required.


Relax your standards.

Our culture is obsessed with perfection. Great marketing and media leads us to believe that we’ll feel all warm and fuzzy inside as long as we cook the perfect meal, have the perfect décor, select the perfect presents, and cover them in the perfect wrapping paper. And we’re constantly comparing our experience to others’ smiling family photos on Facebook and Instagram.


The truth is that those photos don’t show how the turkey was a little on the dry side or that the presents were wrapped in aluminum foil. They don’t show how Uncle Phil got drunk (again) or that little Suzie threw up all over the living room floor.


Sometimes the spontaneous and messy parts of a holiday are the most genuine and memorable. Have realistic expectations that there will be some highs and some lows and it’s all ok. You’ll have great stories to tell for years to come.


Maintain routines.

To keep kid-related drama to a minimum, make an effort to maintain meal and sleep routines as much as possible. You can thank me later.


Have an exit strategy.



If you feel yourself getting frustrated, overwhelmed, or irritable, take a break. Excuse yourself to use the bathroom or step outside for some fresh air. Take some long, deep breaths and regroup before returning to the family.


When you’re a guest in someone else’s home, choose a word, phrase, or signal that you and your spouse can use that’s code for “It’s time to go.” If you’re the host and you’d like your guests to leave, you can start cleaning the kitchen. Many people understand that as a sign you’re ready to end the evening. If they don’t, just politely thank them for coming and let them know you have to be getting to bed.


Look at the bigger picture.

Remember that the holidays only come once a year. They may be awkward or uncomfortable, but you’ll get through it. Every challenging experience is an opportunity for growth and learning for you and your kids. Try to relax, enjoy yourself, and find something – however small – for which to be grateful.


Got any other tips for LESS DRAMA this holiday season? Leave them in the comments below.


Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season,



Wanna work with me 1:1? Check out my private coaching services. If you liked this post, please share it with your friends and “like” it on Facebook. And for even more great tips on becoming a calm and connected parent (delivered right to your inbox every Tuesday), please subscribe to this blog

Showing 10 comments
  • Stephanie

    Here’s a link to special 2016 post-election suggestions! Happy holiday! xox

    • Pam Howard

      Good one, Stephanie! Thanks for sharing!

  • Kelly - Project Me

    Love it Pam. Sharing on my Project Me Facebook page 🙂

  • Rhiannon

    I love how you wrote, ‘our children are watching’ bc it is SO very true. They are learning how to deal with everyday social situations and largely they take their cues from us.
    I also really like ‘look at the bigger picture’ as I find this a wonderful way to help keep challenging situations in perspective. And I find asking myself ‘What is the outcome I want here?’ provides me with extra clarity.

    • Pam Howard

      Hi Rhiannon! To add to your comment, another great question to ask is, “What’s the feeling/experience I’m hoping for?” Thanks for your comment:)

  • Helen Butler

    I was speaking to a friend recently Pam and she suggested I play Bingo with my relatives. To do this you have an idea in your mind before you see them on some of the topics/conversations/reactions/responses you’re going to get – ie anticipate them in advance. Then when you get the response you expected in your head say “bingo”. I’ve tried this already and it works! What it does is make you laugh (at least on the inside!) and lighten the load a little, particularly when you say bingo constantly!! I know this worked for me!

    • Pam Howard

      Ha! I love that, Helen. I think I’ve played that before without realizing it:)

  • Kristy

    Such great advice Pam. It’s so true that children are observing all of our habits, actions and utterances. I like the way you’ve outlined a raft of strategies. So much better to be proactive than reactive at this time of year!

    • Pam Howard

      Totally true, Kristy. A little proactive work goes a long way.

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