4 Tips for Handling Extended Family Stress During the Holidays

The holidays are nearing again. Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations bring family traditions to the forefront as we bid farewell to a year most are glad to see go. We’ll be forever changed in some ways, but believers have much to celebrate. But along with the joy comes handling extended family stress during the holidays. 

“As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God,” 1 Peter 4:10 (NKJV). 

If we’re fortunate, we’ll celebrate with family; grateful that even through difficult times we can count our blessings. This was the year we couldn’t assemble at Easter. Birthdays and anniversary celebrations were scaled back, celebrated without the typical fanfare. The mood improved for most, but many struggled with new restrictions.

Interestingly, I’m speaking with folks even more determined to make this approaching season more meaningful and more festive.

At our Thanksgiving gathering, 35-plus family members will fill tables that stretch between two rooms. It’s been our custom for each one to share one thing for which we’re most grateful. Smiles and tears usually flow together. It’s a sweet tradition engaging every person from our 89-year-old matriarch down to the toddlers.

Once turkey day concludes, the Christmas festivities begin and our calendars strain under the load. Family gatherings are on the agenda as we celebrate the Savior’s birth. It was, after all, the point of His arrival—to reunite us with the Father through His Son. 

It’s a Balancing Act

Unfortunately, stress seems an inevitable feature of the season. There are many added non-negotiable activities. Shopping, cooking, planning, Christmas cards, juggling holiday events, and more. And for most of us, our routine commitments, deadlines, speaking engagements, and work are not on a holiday hiatus. 

We look forward to the holidays and dread them all at the same time. The busyness becomes a balancing act as we try to manage them all. So how do we make it work? 

4 Tips for Handling Extended Family Stress During the Holidays

Give Yourself Some Grace

This season, review what you’ve considered non-negotiable traditions. Focus on the important stuff; surrender the minutia. If you don’t make your homemade peanut brittle for 40 people the world won’t stop spinning. Surrender the mantra “But that’s how we’ve always done it!” Your loved ones will give you grace; give yourself some, too. 

We eliminated the “Mom does it all” routine years ago. My daughters-in-law are major contributors to the planning, preparing, and cleaning up—and they bring others to help. We collaborate on the menu with the entire family—and everybody signs up for an item to prepare. Recently we discovered the traditional turkey dinner was nobody’s favorite. Last year we did Mexican food. This year will be Texas barbecue!

Give Others Grace, Too

Gathering the clan is key to many holiday plans. It often means we celebrate with family we see infrequently. It can be an odd menagerie of relatives with the potential to create some interesting conversation and perhaps stressful situations—that’s for certain. 

“Did you notice your husband’s weird Uncle Harold seemed even stranger than usual? And I knew Gramps would bring up politics. Suzanne let her kids run wild—again. And your sister had more “bah humbug” than “ho-ho-ho.” 

The facts are simple: when you marry, you inherit a bunch of folks you might have left on the bench if you were choosing teams for life. When you say “I do” you get a ready-made roster for free.

For many, the first observation when the extended family gathers is how different they are. Different from you and your immediate family. How different they are from normal people. Mama used to say “normal’s just a setting on the dryer.” She was right on target.

Without grace, relationships can become casualties of these observations. I’m certain it grieves God’s heart. It was not His plan.

So how can we do better this year? As in all things for the believer, God’s Word becomes the roadmap. God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work,” (2 Corinthians 9:8 CSB). While the group can be odd, they are family. God’s big on family. 

4 Tips for Handling Extended Family Stress During the Holidays

Tips to Handle Extended Family Stress During the Holiday Season

There’s good news: you can take action, this holiday season to improve. Perhaps you’ll even learn to appreciate those that tend to rub you the wrong way. Here are a few tips:

  • Pray ahead of family gatherings. And I’m not talking about “Lord, don’t let Gladys ruin the holidays again!” Pray the day brings the family together and refuse to let past friction set the tone. Ask the Lord to be the umpire of conversations, bringing joy and celebration for all. Praying for others is important, and it changes your heart, too. 
  • Leave competition on the field. Competitions yield a winner and a loser—don’t create that environment. Resist temptation to compare or compete, whether it’s over whose kids have achieved more, whose pie is the best, or who drives the nicest car. And in our current setting, refrain from political debate.
  • Remember that different isn’t wrong, it’s just different. Offer grace. Suspend judgment. It’s not your job—unless you see behavior that’s damaging to you or others. And then seek God’s guidance on if, when and how to address it—but it doesn’t warrant a 911 call. Let it go.
  • Extend Grace. A favorite quote that’s helped me many times comes from Toby Mac at Speak Life: “When you finally learn that a person’s behavior has more to do with their internal struggle than it ever did with you . . . you learn grace.”

It might not be easy, but in Christ, it’s possible. Let grace flow.

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