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Holiday Family Gatherings Are Stressful

Tips for coping with 6 challenging situations

We always picture happy holidays with our family: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Diwali. We dream of sumptuous meals and smiling faces even though we know our family is complicated, and perfection is a fantasy.

Family and friends gathered around the dinner table for a holiday meal together
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The truth is the holidays are stressful for almost everyone. Given these trying times, it’s likely global conflicts, contentious lawsuits or climate devastation might come up in conversations. You may want to avoid the conflicts these kinds of conversations can cause.

For those of you who are young to middle aged, the holidays are stressful simply because there is always too much to do. Women, but also men nowadays, are expected to be planners, shoppers, house and tree decorators, gift wrappers, communicators, hosts, and cooks for family gatherings. The result of this role overload is exhaustion, if not worse. My friend Donna says she is usually so tired by Christmas Eve that by 6 pm all she wants to do is go to bed. When I was in my thirties with four young boys, I would get walking pneumonia every December.

Unique stressors for the older generation

For those of us in our 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, holidays are stressful as well. But the reasons are quite different and often not recognized—either by ourselves or by our families. First, we older people have let go of many of the roles we used to take on at holidays. For most of us, the lack of responsibility feels good. But not being part of the hustle and bustle of the season usually makes us feel a bit empty and bleak. I definitely feel on the sidelines. 

Take me, for example. I no longer host holiday meals. I give and get many fewer gifts since my family has gone to a lottery system where you only draw one name. I have fewer events to attend. Some years nowadays I don’t even put out my wimpy artificial tree which is all that is permitted at my retirement community. I still put out my awesome collection of creches from around the world, and that continues to bring me great joy.

Holidays also become a stressor when you are older because so many loved ones are missing from the festivities. This year, I’ll be grieving Peter, my partner of the last five years who died November 1st. I’m doing okay, but I am taking this month off and that’s why you are reading a column that I wrote two years ago. Its advice is evergreen. At family gatherings I also miss my beloved husband, my parents, my sister, my three brothers-in-law, two sisters-in-law, and half my cousins who have all died. These losses of family are terribly sad for me and losses like this are challenging for most older people. Part of aging well is learning how to grieve our losses and eventually move on. But it isn’t easy. 

Depressed elder sitting alone near the Christmas tree.
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I hear from older people who have very small families, or whose families are distant by geography or emotionally, that they dread the holidays. It is stressful to have nowhere to go. One client reported that she deals with her no-family-available situation by taking early action. In October, she calls a group of friends and signs them up to come to her apartment for the holiday meals. Having that in place helps her and, of course, friend-families can be wonderful. If you can’t host, call a friend and arrange lunch or dinner at a favorite restaurant or order takeout. Or do something non-traditional if that suits your style.

Family gatherings can present all kinds of challenges to older people. Here are six vignettes that describe some common family behavioral patterns. And a few thoughts for how we older people can deal with them.

Family 1. Oblivious

When Grandma arrives at this holiday gathering, she receives hugs, kisses, and a hearty welcome. A few minutes later, however, she finds herself left sitting alone in a corner far from the action. Everyone else is cooking, laughing, and having fun, often in a different room. She feels invisible. This is a common story.

I tell older people in this situation to speak up. You need to say something like, “Hey there, let me help peel the potatoes.” or “Can you move me in closer?”

Elder mother and adult son laughing together while enjoying some coco.
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Family 2. Loud and drunk

This family drinks a lot on holidays. Some of them get drunk, not happy drunk, but noisy drunk and often angry. As the day goes the arguments escalate and the shouting begins. Older guests usually feel tense, helpless, and scared. As their coach, I suggest they go to another part of the house. And, as a last resort, leave. Be sure and have the number of a taxi or Uber with you, just in case.

Family 3. Adults act like they did as kids

Have you noticed how often adults revert to their childhood roles once they get in the same room with their family? It is a common pattern. For example, the childhood rebel arrives two hours late dressed in muddy jeans. The oldest sister is bossing everyone around and the younger sibs get annoyed. The family clown tells jokes they have heard before while the one who was a bookworm as a child flips through magazines. The grandparents watching their adult children acting so childish, sit silent. 

To constructively break this pattern, I suggest talking one-on-one with a few different family members. I find it works well to say, “Can I have two or three minutes to talk with you, with just us two?” they usually agree and you can go chat in a different room. This is a wonderful way to get to know your family as they are now and have truly pleasant moments.

Serious conversations at the holiday dinner table.
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Family 4. Conflict in the family

This family includes one or two people who differ from the majority on big issues like climate change, conflict in the Middle East, or Trump. Soon after the family gathers, the arguing begins. People interrupt each other and try their hardest to show how wrong the views of the others are. As the noise gets louder and the tone gets angrier, the seventy + generations usually think, “All I want is a peaceful day.” 

Families do not have to agree. Too many of us assume that if we are a family, we must all come down on the same side of an important and polarizing issue. It is liberating to give up that goal of agreement. I have learned it works better to say to someone, “Help me understand exactly why you think that way.” And then listen. This usually leads to a much better exchange.

Family 5. Poorly behaved children

At this gathering, grandparents and other older guests can get stressed when the older kids do not help with the meal preparation, do not talk politely to the guests, do not say “thank you” for gifts and may not even come into the room where people are gathered. Younger kids may be whiny and fussy. The parents of these kids ignore their behavior.

Grandfather talking with grandchild over a delicious Christmas meal.
Image designed by © Framestock on AdobeStock

I have learned that as older guests, and, especially as grandparents, we are wise to be silent. It is hard to refrain from judgment. But if the goal is a close, harmonious family it is worth the effort. Holidays are usually not the best time to be critical. Grandparents’ role is not to mind the manners but to love and encourage. 

Family 6. When there is pressure to conform

This family puts subtle or not-so-subtle pressure on everybody in the family to conform to the holiday program as planned. They have organized activities like games, hikes, formal meals, church services, and other events.


The challenge for those of us who are seventy and older is to stay comfortable so we can enjoy ourselves. Can we skip the walk in the raw afternoon? Can we bow out of the late-night event? Can we speak up about the uncomfortable mattress in the guest room or not? On this one, I think we need to speak up and speak up far sooner than we usually do. We, elders, need to take self-care seriously. 

Young woman scrolling on her phone while the rest of the table celebrates a holiday cheers with win glasses.
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Tips for Happier Holidays

  1. Let go of the fantasy of perfect holidays and expect the unexpected. 

  2. Set up times to talk and connect, one-on-one, with family members.

  3. Remember families do not have to agree.

  4. Ask for what you need and want to be comfortable.

  5. Do not try to fix or change the views of family members.

  6. Self-care is always important especially on holidays.

The stress and the dysfunctional dynamics of our families are just a part of the holiday scene. But there is so much more. The holidays are also about all the ordinary things we always do, the wonderful traditions, the happy times. Take time to stop and enjoy those things! 

In short, follow the advice given to Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of the meditation app Headspace from one of his meditation teachers: "Be present, be patient, be gentle, be kind…everything else will take care of itself."

Grandmother and grandchild having fun together in the kitchen during Thanksgiving.
Image designed by © Famveldman on AdobeStock

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