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Quick Guide: How can I spend time and communicate more effectively with family this holiday season?

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

When it comes to communicating with others (especially family members) we tend to become exasperated, frustrated, angry, or even emotionally shut off rather quickly during the holidays. As you prepare for the holiday season we have compiled a quick guide of hints and tips that you should keep in mind.

1. Use Empathy and Validation

Sometimes it is important to fall back to basics when we are talking to our family members especially those that like to get under our skin causing us to become upset, frustrated, and feeling like we are at the end of our rope. Empathy and validation are two key communication skills that will help keep the tension levels low, and your ability to enjoy your holidays high. These skills will also come in handy when it comes time to determine how you are going to connect this year, and what the expectations are for everyone attending.

When it comes to showing empathy and giving validation to others it is important to be actively listening, engaged in the conversation, and seeking opportunities to engage the other person positively. For a lot of us in order to feel engaged and willing to participate in a conversation with someone (especially if it is feeling like negative or repetitive topic) we need to remind ourselves that at our core we are all striving to get our needs met, and feel that we are understood. On a daily basis each of us run into moments where either ourselves or someone else will invalidate us by saying something like "At least it's not...", "It could be worse", "You shouldn't feel that way", or "I'm not having this discussion." When we hear or think these types of comments negativity, low self-worth, anger, sadness, and resentment gain room to grow in our thoughts and feelings allowing for lower frustration tolerance, agitation and irritability, and low motivation. Due to this negativity we can encounter more arguments and be less willing to hear others perspectives which can ruin a family get together.

When thinking about how to validate someone feelings it can be important to make sure you are paying attention to their verbal cues, use your body language to show you are listening, reflect back to them what you hear them saying, and find ways to relate to them (Conzen, 2020). The key in utilizing empathy and validation is to make it an active process in your communication with others; especially family members.

With all of the negative world events that have been occurring in the year 2020 it will be more important than ever to work on having positive family interactions this holiday season. You may even consider taking your empathy and validation skills a step further by attempting to practice "radical empathy". Jack Schott from Camp Stomping Ground provided a good definition of "radical empathy" as: "actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others. To fundamentally change our perspectives from judgmental to accepting, in an attempt to more authentically connect with ourselves and others."(Schott, 2017). By actively working towards understanding and sharing the feelings of our family members this holiday season the opportunity for reduced conflict, improved communication, and a more enjoyable get together are possible.

2. Find a Way to Connect Virtually or By Practicing Social Distancing

This year has been a rough time for feeling comfortable meeting with colleagues, friends, and family in person. Even if you have met in person there are concerns as to whether or not you have potentially been exposed to COVID-19. As a result, to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and keep tensions low it is important to openly discuss fears, concerns, and needs surrounding COVID-19. These may include:

  • Is there a preference between getting together in person or connecting virtually?

  • Has anyone been in contact with someone exposed to COVID-19?

  • Who in the family is willing to wear masks and who is not?

  • Is there a way to socially distance while enjoying each other's presence in person?

It is important that as your family is processing these questions you are allowing everyone's perspectives to be heard and clarified. Asking important questions like these will help you and your family identify what is a comfortable level of risk while allowing for each others' opinions to be respected. While these conversations may be frustrating and come with significant levels of anxiety it is important to remember what you are able to control, and to remind yourself of why you are attempting to connect as a family whether virtually or in person.

There are plenty of options to utilize technology to virtually connect this year if meeting in person is not feasible. With video platforms like Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and more you can bring your family together in order to prepare and eat a meal together, play a card game together, create a series of challenges to compete each other against in, discuss your family heritage, and use a game app as part of a family game night. To assist you in planning these virtual events you can check out articles like Let's Roam's 10 Best Virtual Family Game Night Apps, the Bash's 35 Virtual Party Ideas to Socialize During Self-Isolation, the Bash's 12 Virtual Family Party Ideas to Keep in Touch in Quarantine, or Lovetoknow's Fun Questions to Ask Your Family Members.

3. Set Boundaries for Yourself and as a Family

Setting boundaries with family members can be one of the most difficult challenges to take on but it can also be one of the most rewarding. By setting boundaries you are able to establish what you are willing to talk about, how you expect to interact with each other, and what you are willing to do to get the full value out of your family experiences. Setting boundaries as a family does not have to be a formal discussion but can occur by reminding each other what is expected as part of the get together or in one on one conversations as needed.

When setting boundaries it is important to define, communicate, stay simple, and set consequences (Selva, 2020). Defining a boundary includes highlighting what you are willing and not willing to do. An example of a defined boundary could be "I need for there to be no political discussions at the dinner table." Communicating these defined boundaries can sometimes be as simple as saying no. “Say ‘no’ simply but firmly to something you do not want to do. Do not feel that you need to explain” (Kairns, 1992). However, it is important to note that not all family members and individuals you attempt to set boundaries with are able to respond to a simple "no". For more difficult conversations around boundaries it is important to make sure that you are keeping your responses Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm which is known as the BIFF response (Eddy, 2018). The BIFF response has been shown to help reduce conflicts and get your point across in a healthy manner which is helpful when trying to set boundaries, and help others understand your needs.

If you believe your family will need a formal discussion about appropriate boundaries consider discussing how you can get the full value out of your get together by encouraging the value of yourself, each other, the family, and the experience in a family discussion. A good reminder for your family may be "the five finger rule". As part of the five finger rule you are actively attempting to remember to celebrate others, take responsibility for your own actions, not utilize negativity, make an effort to participate in some form, and respect each other's physical and emotional safety by each finger representing one of those topics. This tool has been utilized with challenge groups, family members, and more as a physical memory device to get the full value out of workshops, challenge programs, family therapy sessions, etc.

"While setting boundaries is crucial, it is even more crucial to respect the boundaries that others have set for themselves. This goes for parents, children, romantic partners, bosses, coworkers, and anyone who interacts with or has power over anyone else. Respect is a two-way street, and appreciating the boundaries others have set for themselves is as important as setting boundaries for oneself" (Selva, 2020). To further explore boundaries and boundary setting whether in relationships with significant others, parents, children, or anyone else you can check out this summary sheet on "How to Create Healthy Boundaries" by the University of Kentucky.

Putting Everything into Action

We have taken some time to establish that it is important to utilize empathy and validation, find the right activity, and to make sure the right boundaries are set. However, it is also important to keep in mind what you would like to get out of this holiday season. Take a moment and brainstorm what you want to get from this holiday season with your family.

  • Do you want to get together in person? Or connect virtually?

  • Is there anything specific you would like to share with your family this year?

  • What else may be important to consider about your family get together?

By starting to answer these questions and following the three key tips above you are well on your way to having a truly enjoyable time where you are able to effectively communicate while spending time with your family. When it is all said and done the holiday season can hold some of the most positive days of the year when you and your family work together to understand each other, be creative with how you can connect to each other, and respect each other’s boundaries. This quick guide is only three key points of ensuring that you and your family can enjoy this holiday season; the work to make that happen starts with you.

Learn more about working with family members by scheduling an appointment with a therapist today or subscribing to the blog for future content.


Conzen, N. (2020, June 12). 10 ways to validate someone's feelings. Retreived November 14, 2020, from

Eddy, B., LCSW. (2018, September 30). BIFF: 4 Ways to Respond to Hostile Comments. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from

How to Create Healthy Boundaries. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2020, from

Kairns, D.M. (1992). Protect yourself: Set boundaries. RN, 55(3), 19-22.

Selva, J. (2020, October 16). How to Set Healthy Boundaries: 10 Examples + PDF Worksheets. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from

Schott, J. (2017, February 16). What is Radical Empathy. Retrieved November 14, 2020 from


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