Family Guide: How to Handle the Holidays When a Loved One Lives with a Mental Health Condition

By Sharon Dunas

Holidays tend to be especially stressful for people living with mental health conditions and their families. Below are some expectations and tips on how to reduce stress.

How Holidays Can Be Challenging for Those Living with Mental Health Conditions

There are implied expectations of certain types of behavior and feelings, such as exchanging gifts and being happy.

Large groups can be over-stimulating and confusing.

Memories of happier times can be painful for those remember more care-free times before a mental health diagnosis.

Family get-togethers can raise the issue of what the person living with a mental health condition will tell people about their life, illness, or how they are doing.

Holidays lend themselves to people comparing themselves unfavorably to others (perhaps feeling insecure in the company of younger, higher-functioning or more accomplished relatives).

How to Reduce Holiday Stress for Your Family

Discuss holiday plans in advance. It may be important to acknowledge the needs of all family members, preferences, and limits before a workable situation can be reached.

Acknowledge any mixed feelings your loved one may have. Do not make assumptions about how they will feel or act. It is okay to feel ambivalent.

Keep expectations realistic, especially regarding whether your loved one can tolerate a gathering, for how long, and what kind of participation he or she is capable of doing.

Respect and support your loved one’s choices and decisions regarding whether they are comfortable participating and in what way. Be allowing.

Accept your limits. 

Accept your loved one’s limits. 

Help your loved one figure out how to handle some of the stress (i.e. how the person might answer questions during family time, what task they might focus on before and during gatherings, how long to stay, places to go to take breaks, and so forth). You could give your loved one a camera and let them take family photos at the holiday gathering. Consider that many people tend to have a better time if they are part of the planning process for a holiday.

Lower your own expectations to ensure that you can have quality time yourself. Expectations are the root of all unhappiness. When we can only see our expectations, we miss another person altogether.

Look for the good possibilities a holiday may present. Look for the good qualities in your loved one.

Be kind to yourself. You deserve it.

Sharon Dunas, LMFT, is the Board President for NAMI Westside Los Angeles.