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How to handle family drama during the holidays

The holidays can be a time for togetherness, gratitude, and, for some of us, family drama. Year after year, we might find ourselves in uncomfortable situations rooted in long-standing conflicts, differing beliefs, or continued patterns of behavior, leading to tension or inevitable holiday fights. While we can’t control how relatives act, we can be mindful of how we react to holiday family drama — and even find a better way to approach this emotionally loaded time of year.

Mindfulness - How to handle family drama during the holidays
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Key takeaways:

  • Family time is stressful for many of us over the holidays

  • Meditation, along with strategies like setting clear boundaries, can help

  • Try 11 meditations for handling holiday family drama


Why are the holidays difficult for families?

In a busy season that promotes time spent together, gift giving, and the value of relationships, holiday stress might make us feel lonely, experience financial worries, and even heighten our social anxiety. In one survey, 62% of participants said they experience a “very or somewhat elevated” stress level during the holiday season, with only 10% of participants reporting no holiday stress at all. One common stressor participants had in common? Navigating family dynamics.

It’s not just holiday timing that can be difficult for families. Research shows that our relationships with our families have an effect on our well-being, and that strained relationships create a noteworthy amount of stress in our lives. So when a stressful time and a stressful family relationship collide, we might find ourselves feeling more fraught than ever.


Using meditation to approach holiday family drama

Sometimes we get so caught up in thinking about an uncomfortable situation and anticipating how it might play out that we neglect to take care of ourselves during the holidays. And so we sit there, making small talk in an attempt to skirt the tensions and avoid all known trigger-points, without first looking out for ourselves. When we don’t practice self-care, we start the season from a disadvantage. The good news? Meditation can teach us to cope better with family drama over the holidays.

Thousands of studies show the science-backed benefits of meditation, including less stress, improved relationships, and increased compassion — all of which can benefit us during tense times with our families. Meditation can even help us approach a volatile situation in a softer, gentler way. One published study found that a daily meditation practice of Headspace for 3 weeks reduced aggressive behavior by 57%. So this could be the year that we’re able to stay calm when our parents ask us, yet again, why didn’t we bring a new partner home for the holidays!

The reason meditation can be so effective in diffusing situations is because it trains our mind to be less judgmental, more kind, and more understanding. It shows us how to turn hot-headed reactions into considered responses. And it also helps us to be kinder to ourselves, because we learn to recognize and not indulge in the negative self-talk that is so often behind our own suffering. So we can see how calmer minds lead to calmer environments for everyone concerned. And the calmer we are internally, the better equipped we are to not react when family members push our buttons.


4 ways to handle holiday family drama

Even with a meditation practice, we still might find ourselves feeling upset when a familiar tense situation arises. If that happens, there are a few additional strategies we could try.

  1. Set boundaries.

Before heading into family time, we can prepare ourselves by understanding what to expect from the situation and setting clear boundaries for how we’re going to approach it. If we know our parents are going to ask us that same question as always, we can decide ahead of time what’s best for us — and if we want to engage in the discussion or not.

When set in a compassionate way, boundaries can protect both ourselves and our family members. We care for ourselves first by establishing our own limits and needs so that we can feel safe and comfortable, and in turn, we’re able to show up better for loved ones. Establishing boundaries can also help us see that our boundaries are just that, our own. If someone in our family chooses to set different boundaries for themselves, that’s how they’re approaching the situation, and it says nothing about us.

  1. Take a break.

If we sense things are heating up, we can try excusing ourselves for a moment to find some personal space. An SOS meditation in the Headspace app can help, or even some simple, deep breathing — in through the nose, and out through the mouth — to ground ourselves and regain a bit of calm.

If possible, a quick walk outside can also help us reconnect with ourselves. A published study found that people who walk have lower stress levels (including compared to people who engage in more strenuous exercise, like running). Walking can help us connect with our bodies and get some mood-boosting endorphins, so we’re ready to re-enter our family situation with a clear mind.

  1. Model good behavior.

Even in the most toxic family interactions, one expert recommends modeling the behavior we want to receive as a key tool for approaching family drama. That means if we’re looking for compassion, we can try to be compassionate first, showing a family member we care about them. If we want to feel understood by our family, we can do our best to understand their perspective and point of view as well. Standing in the shoes of another, seeing a dispute or a concern from their point of view, always affords any heated situation the opportunity of understanding. And when we truly take the time to listen, rather than always wanting to get our point across, it increases the prospects of our points being truly heard as well. If we regularly meditate going into the holiday season, we might find that it’s easier to find this sense of compassion for others in the first place.

  1. Practice self-compassion.

Maybe we approach a situation mindfully and do everything “right,” but still find ourselves saying something we’re not proud of when our parents make that same judgmental comment again this year. That’s okay. Finding a sense of self-compassion in the moment — when we remember to be gentle and understanding with ourselves, much like we would for a close friend — can help us move forward. When we’re kind to ourselves, we’re much more likely to take a kind approach when we interact with others, even those family members who know just what to say to set us off.


Try 11 meditations for handling holiday family drama

Looking for more meditations for navigating challenging family dynamics? The Headspace app offers members several courses and single meditations on handling holiday family drama, including:

  • Relationships course. Focus less on self-critical chatter to achieve greater harmony with others and within yourself.

  • Patience course. Learn to recognize impatience, process it and let it go.

  • Kindness course. Foster feelings of compassion towards yourself and learn to judge others less harshly too.

  • Difficult Conversations meditation. Develop a calmer, more patient mindset.

  • Managing Conflict meditation. Learn how to create the environment for a calm, productive conversation.

  • Losing Your Temper meditation. Take a deep breath and let go of whatever is causing you to feel angry or frustrated.

  • Taking a Break meditation. Reconnect with a feeling of being present so that you can feel refreshed, a little lighter, and a little calmer during the rest of your day.

  • Finding Happiness at Home course. Find positivity and grow closer together.

  • Listening to Others meditation. Realize when you’re distracted and gently bring your attention back to the person speaking.

  • Acceptance course. Learn to let go of resistance and find acceptance, not just toward your own thoughts and feelings, but also toward other people and difficult situations.

  • Leaving Home course. Learn to cope with change by creating a sense of stability in the mind.

We’re not going to fix uncomfortable family dynamics over a few dinner courses, and that’s okay. What we can do is be mindful of our own reactions to stress and other difficult emotions. Learning to accept what we can’t control and still find compassion for our families can be a powerful way to experience family drama without letting ourselves get wrapped up in it. It might not be the most wonderful time of year for all of us, but we can work to make it a better time of year.

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