Happier Holidays :: A Therapist’s Guide to Managing Family Drama

Every January, my counseling practice experiences an increase in new clients and appointments. I’ve jokingly come to refer to January as “Holiday Rehab.” Of course, many people do choose January to start therapy as a function of their new resolutions. But equally compelling are the number of people who come with the goal of improving family relationships triggered by holiday tension and stressful holiday interactions.

So I’ve compiled some of my best advice that can be applied AHEAD of the holiday to hopefully improve the holiday experience and preserve a little bit of your sanity.


Manage Your Expectations

If I could pick one thing that I think causes the most disappointment and stress, it would be expectations. Now I don’t mean that you have to lower your standards to the point that any level of dysfunction is acceptable. But if we are honest with ourselves, we all tend to have great expectations when it comes to the holidays which can be a set-up for disappointment.

When planning holiday activities with family, if everyone comes to the table with their own set of expectations, it can be a recipe for disaster. Families include all personality types, interests and lifestyles. They include the cousin who is always late for dinner, the grandma who doesn’t understand your parenting style, and the uncle who drinks more than he eats. It includes grandparents who will insist on buying the kids gifts with 8 million tiny pieces. plastic-toysAnd don’t forget your sister, whose kids get a cool grand worth of Santa gifts, while you are trying the “Jesus only got three gifts” approach.

With all these different personalities, there is bound to be some disagreement. What’s important is being able to recognize that not everyone does things the way you do them. And that’s okay. When you are able to recognize that everyone doesn’t have to agree or do things the way you do them, you can decide to, in the words of Elsa, LET IT GO! This frees you to focus on your own life.

But what about when someone else’s choices interfere with yours? Unfortunately, sometimes that does happen. And in that case, you have a few choices.

Be More Flexible

So Cousin Eddie and his wife show up late every Christmas dinner. Ok, so what? Could you maybe be more flexible? Is dinner at 12:30 as opposed to noon really going to ruin Christmas? Or what about when your sister-in-law insists on eating on Chinet, which you think is lazy, and a waste of the good Christmas dishes? Ask yourself, is getting my way really worth hurting the relationships with my family?christmas-plate

And what about when your mother-in-law buys the kids that toy that might as well be called “750 Piece Plastic Junk Set?” Should you take it up with her, reinforcing your anti-clutter home organization system? Or could you let just the kids enjoy it for today, and then Monday when they go back to school, you box it up. Chances are it will be out of sight, out of mind and everyone can go on their merry way.

Ok, fine, you’re saying, but these are harmless disagreements. What if it’s bigger than that? What if every new year, you look back on the blur that was the holidays and wonder why you didn’t enjoy any of it? Then maybe it’s time to try a new approach…

Set Better Boundaries

Let’s say your mom and mother-in-law both expect you to be at their house on Christmas Day, but you and your spouse really just want to stay home and enjoy a leisurely morning around the tree. In that case, set boundaries!! Once you are a self supporting adult, you have every right to tell Mom (kindly) what you and your family’s plans are. And then stick to them! Understanding and accepting that you don’t have to, and likely can’t, attend every function you are invited to will free you up to proactively choose how you and your family want to invest your holiday time.

One of the ideas that I preach to my clients that continually gets good feedback is this: keep Christmas morning sacred. If nothing else, reserve Christmas morning for you and your immediate family. Don’t make commitments early in the day. Especially if you have young children, allow your family the space to open gifts together privately, enjoy each other and bask in the magic that is Christmas morning. Even if you travel for the holidays, try to find a way to carve out that private time.  Whether your family believes in Santa or not, the excitement of Christmas morning for young children is such a fleeting period of time. Preserve it. And protect it by having good boundaries.

Sounds good, you’re saying. But what about the drama? The guilt trip? The hurt feelings that will result when you say no? I’ve heard it over and over. “You don’t know my mom. It will ruin her Christmas if we aren’t there by 2pm.” Here’s where I have to be blunt: If Mom’s Christmas is ruined by you putting your immediate family first, Mom is the one with the problem. Which brings me to my final piece of advice…

Follow Through with Healthy Emotional Boundaries

When you decide to be in control of your own life, not everyone will like it. And in many families, guilt trips, manipulation and hurt feelings are the tools that are used to control each other. Decide that you won’t participate in that! Having healthy emotional boundaries means making your own choices, being confident that you chose them for the right reasons, and not being swayed by guilt and manipulation.

Part of being a mentally healthy adult means understanding that others do not have the power to control your emotions as long as you don’t let them. And it also means understanding that you are not responsible for managing the emotions of others. In your situation, that may mean refusing to cave to a guilt trip. It may mean deciding that you won’t respond to that guilt-inducing text.

In All of It, BE KIND

In navigating all of this, remember that having boundaries doesn’t preclude being kind. Sometimes when a person finally finds their voice to set boundaries, they can overcorrect to the opposite extreme and take on a harsh attitude toward others. But even when setting boundaries, you can and should be kind and respectful to others without feeling that you have to bend to their demands. Striking that balance is not always easy. But when done consistently, it will begin to shape a new family dynamic that results in healthier family relationships. And hopefully, happier holidays.

Jamie LeBoeuf
Jamie has had more careers than children but still considers wife and mom the role she was born for. She has been married to her high school sweetheart Jared for fifteen years. Together they have Ben, 12, Jack, 10 and Lauren, 4. Jamie grew up in Buras, Louisiana, but has lived in the Baton Rouge area since 1996. Jamie attended LSU law school and practiced law for about two years before becoming a stay at home mom, then later making a career change to professional counseling. She now works part-time as a marriage, family and individual counselor. Jamie and her family are active members in their church, Live Oak Methodist, and volunteer there in several areas. Like her mother and grandmother before her, she enjoys cooking the foods of her cajun heritage, and in large enough quantities to feed the neighborhood.


  1. I agree with you here. Sometimes, it is really stressful when you want to please your family. Just like us, we will travel for almost 5 hours in order to come home to my mom’s house. Every year we celebrated Christmas with my family. However, this year is not going to be a Christmas with them because we want to celebrate it in our house. So, I just told my mom and dad that we cannot come. There is a little pressure because my dad got emotional, but I just explained to him honestly that I have already a family and it is hard for us to travel because of our new baby boy. At least now, he understands me. We just scheduled to visit them after Christmas and they also agreed to us. Thanks that I was released from my stress. Lastly, thanks to your tips here. Happy Holidays!

    xoxo, Theresa


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