For some, family gatherings are a great time – relatives come together from far and wide to catch up, eat, drink and be merry.

Then there’s the rest of us. There are our in-laws or our uncle who grills us about our career success but can never remember what we do. And then there’s our sister who’s always trying to sell us expensive skin care products. It can all add up to making “the most wonderful time of the year” one of the most stressful times of the year. And it can make us feel anxious before, during and after family gatherings.

The good news is that there are communication skills you can learn to help turn conversations around, establish boundaries and avoid misunderstandings.

Many of the stressors between you and your family members might be prompted by them or stem from more complicated family dynamics. It’s important to remember that it’s not your responsibility to fix everything. But taking steps to improve these interactions can help you cope with the anxiety that family gatherings can bring and, in the best-case scenarios, lead to stronger family relationships.

Why try to improve our communication with family?

Scientific research shows that we need healthy relationships in order to be in good health. Why? There are several biological and psychological reasons, but the main one is social support. Social support means connections with other people who make you feel loved, heard and cared about. The research says that those connections benefit your mental and physical health, can reduce your levels of stress, and even nurture your sense of purpose in life.

But healthy relationships depend on healthy communication. That’s not something we’re born with, but rather something we learn over time. Fortunately, if you originally learned negative communication, it’s never too late to reset and improve to foster healthier relationships in your life.

Why are family gatherings stressful?

Every one of us is unique, and the complexities of family dynamics make this a tough question to answer, but there are a few common reasons that family gatherings might cause stress.

  • Differing values and opinions
  • Varying degrees of communication skills and use of empathy
  • Disparities between how family members of different generations view the world
  • Negative feelings from past experiences influencing the present moment
  • Topics coming up in conversation that are triggering (a trigger is something that brings up a painful memory and is often distressing)
  • Differing degrees of comfort around sharing personal information about one’s life (for example one’s partner, family life or career)
  • Feeling uncomfortable around someone based on how they’ve spoken or acted in the past
  • Negative social effects caused by long periods of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic

How to set boundaries with your family

To take care of ourselves and improve our connections with family, one of the best things we can do is set boundaries. When someone asks something of us – maybe it’s to host a holiday event, give someone a ride or cook something specific – we often naturally feel pressure to say yes.

That may be driven by a desire to avoid conflict or the fear of disappointing that person. But it’s important to stay true to your values and prioritize your health and peace. And one big way to do that is by not overcommitting just to please someone else.

So how do you know if the matter is something you want to do or something you’re feeling pressured to do? Our emotions can get a bit muddled when we’re experiencing anxiety, so here’s a tip.

Take a deep breath and try to focus on being mindful. Now, does the idea of saying yes to this make you feel happy and excited? Or does it make you feel anxious? If it’s the second one, that’s a pretty clear sign that this is something you’re not comfortable doing.

It’s time to set a boundary with the other person so you’re both on the same page about what you’re comfortable with, and so expectations are clear. Here are some basic guidelines to help you set boundaries.

  • Recognize that your needs are important. Whether it’s your time, your space or your peace, you deserve to prioritize self-care. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else either.
  • Plan ahead. Prepare what you want to say ahead of time, so you feel confident and ready. Practicing it or running it by someone you trust can help, too.
  • Be clear but kind. Be direct when you communicate your boundaries, but also do it kindly. These aren’t the easiest conversations for either person.
  • Be realistic. Think realistically about the situation and the boundaries you’re setting. And consider how you feel about the long-term, too.
  • Stay firm. After the boundary has been communicated, stand your ground and stay consistent.
  • Determine the consequences. Along with boundaries come consequences. Be clear about what will happen if the boundary isn’t respected and then follow through.
  • Remember your right to walk away. If the relationship is feeling toxic and taking a toll on your well-being, it’s okay to take some space from that person – either temporarily or permanently. The same goes for conversations that are feeling toxic or unproductive.

First things first, it’s important to be aware of how you communicate. Then you can practice swapping out negative communication skills with positive ones. The more you practice, the more natural and automatic it will become.

Here are some guidelines for healthy communication that you can work on:

  • Use active listening. Listening is different from hearing. Hearing is passive – listening is active. To actively listen, repeat or paraphrase what someone says to show them that you understand and are engaged in the conversation. Ask questions if you’re not sure what someone means to say.
  • Assume positive intent and seek to understand. Minimize your assumptions and consider that someone else may have a different viewpoint – which is okay! It’s healthy for us to hear other perspectives – it keeps our minds open and curious, and it builds empathy. Ask questions for clarity but don’t interrogate. For example, instead of saying “Did you finish that project?”, you can ask “How is that project going?”
  • Be mindful of your body language. Someone listening to you gets just as much meaning from your body language as they do from what you’re saying. Are you crossing your arms defensively? Pay attention to your facial expressions. Are you making eye contact? Notice if your tone of voice is calm or harsh. Having awareness about these things and relaxing into a more neutral physical state can also help you feel calm and grounded.
  • Be assertive instead of passive aggressive. Being passive aggressive can mean indirectly expressing negative feelings and being uncooperative. For example, instead of saying “We can try, but I doubt it will work,” say “Can we brainstorm some other ways to do this?” When you’re being assertive, you use “I” instead of “you” statements and provide input when it’s requested. And when you get involved, you share the stage rather than taking it over.
  • Be proactive in preventing and resolving conflicts. Be mindful when you sense that there may be a difference of opinion. Be sure your body language shows respect. Try to stay calm and think for a few moments before you speak. And ask questions without judging the person or their ideas. It’s important to get to a place where you both agree on what a problem is. Sometimes the problem will even melt away in the process if you both realize there were basic misunderstandings.
  • Give people the chance to change. If someone is taking steps to make positive changes and mend things in your relationship, try to give them a chance to show up differently. Most of us would appreciate having the same chance if it were us. It takes a lot of humility to try to change, and that genuine effort is a great start toward a healthier relationship.

Taking care of yourself and your relationships

Holidays can be a stressful time for a variety of reasons. When the kids don’t want to get dressed and you smell something burning in the oven, it can make you wonder if this is really a “holiday.”

Stress can sometimes go hand in hand with other mental health conditions like anxiety or depression. Feeling depressed during the holidays is a real but treatable concern. Scientific studies show that rates of depression are highest around the holidays. We know there are events to plan, gifts to give, miles to travel – and yes, your perfectly imperfect family to spend time with.

But when all those difficult relationships come knocking at your door, it can help to remember how to ground yourself. Practicing mindfulness and healthy communication skills is one of the best ways to build up your emotional resilience, manage stress and make those tough interactions easier (and less dreaded).

It can be incredibly valuable to talk to a mental health professional about all of this. They can help you navigate sticky family dynamics and, most importantly, guide you on how to advocate for your mental health and peace during every season.