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TALKING IT OUT: 10 Strategies for Dealing with Family Triggers on the Holidays

With some planning and preparation you can maximize the peace of the season.
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By Dr. Easter Yassa, Registered Psychologist

*The individuals in this story are completely fictional and any resemblance to anyone existing now or in the past is purely coincidental.

Don* owns a large successful company employing hundreds and planning and managing complex projects which he delivers on time and on budget. Yet each time he gets together with his parents over the holidays they still refer to how he was an irresponsible partier as a teenager and don’t involve him in planning any gatherings. Don feels angry, drinks too much, and vows every year that he won’t spend the holidays with them next year.

Susan* is a busy mom who also works from home, regularly juggling the schedules and needs of her three children while also meeting job deadlines. As a kid she was prone to daydreaming and overeating and, when gathering with her older siblings over the holidays they still tease her about being flaky. Susan feels resentful, eats too much and zones out, and dreads the next holiday gathering.

It doesn’t seem to matter how old we are, what we have accomplished in our lives, or if we’ve children of our own, something about getting together with family over the holidays seems to stir up strong emotions and can throw us back into the predefined roles we played as kids. This phenomenon - referred to by Psychologists as Role Regression - is real and alive during the holidays. You are not alone.

Psychologists have long noticed an increase in people seeking therapy for depression, anxiety and relationship conflict over the holidays. Suicide rates unfortunately have also been shown to increase as the year ends and another is due to begin. Unresolved past emotional issues often surface around the holidays as we spend more time with family, new and old, leaving us in turmoil, struggling to stay calm and centred.

If you notice you’re feeling upset or anxious and/or avoiding spending time with family during the holidays here are some suggestions that might help you navigate the triggers of role regression:

1. Check yourself. Consider questioning your own beliefs about what you think you know about your family members.

2. Be Curious. Sometimes being on the defensive for perceived slights can make us retreat and less interested in others stories. Asking questions about the lives of people we already think we know can help us connect and understand better who they are today.

3. Find the humour. Sometimes finding the funny can disarm even the most explosive event. Stepping back from and watching predictable family dynamics can sometimes bring a perspective that makes it less personal.

4. Avoid making it worse. Adding alcohol or substances to emotionally triggering events can leave us less able to access our coping resources and add fuel to the fire. If you know you’re likely to be triggered make a plan for how you will get in and out of the situation without making it worse. If you are struggling with addictions AHS Adult Addiction Services at 403-367-5000 can support you.

5. Set some boundaries. If you know that interactions with some family members are bound to spiral into hostility or negative emotions give yourself permission to put some limits around how much time you allow yourself to spend, the time of day you visit, whether you’re alone with them, or whether you visit at all.

6. Take care of yourself. If being around certain family members is upsetting, ask another adult to run interference for you, support you, or find tasks to engage in that help you feel more grounded or focused while in their presence. Getting enough rest and planning your day for maximum coping resources can help you get through an otherwise tricky encounter.

7. Be honest. If you don’t like how a family member is speaking to you consider being honest about how it feels. Starting with the framework “When you do/say X, I feel X” can be a structured way to directly and openly address the dynamics while owning your reaction and not getting caught up in the blame game.

8. Access support. Booking an appointment to talk it out with a psychologist can help you make sense out of old or unhealthy patterns, resolve old hurts, plan for healthier ways to cope and feel supported in caring for ourselves.

9. Get help. Call the 24/7 distress line at 403-266-4357 or chat with them online at or go to Cochrane Urgent Care (403-851-6000) if you feel you are in crisis and having difficulty coping.

10. Be safe. Go to the emergency room if you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or others.

Yes, family can be a trigger but you don’t have to regress. With some planning and preparation you can help make sure you’re minimizing the fallout into the new year and maximizing the peace of the season.

Easter Yassa, Ph.D., is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Cochrane. You can learn more about Dr. Yassa and how she helps adults at Dr. Yassa can occasionally be seen chasing her toddler around local grocery stores and behaving awkwardly in public in order to protect someone’s confidentiality.