A woman is wearing a festive holiday hat surrounded by wrapped gifts and a green tree. She is holding a sign that reads HELP.

Do not let these 60-degree temperatures fool you. While it might feel like spring in Hampton Roads, the holiday season is in the air. We are supposed to believe this is the most joyous time of year, and for most it is. But for about 30% of the population, the stress and worries begin to rise. 

“The major question I hear from people during the holidays is how to have difficult conversations with people within their circle of family, friends and workplace,” says Agatha Parks-Savage, EdD, LPC, RN, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Associate Dean of Graduate Medical Education at EVMS. “The three most stressful talks tend to be related to commitments and schedules, personal loss and illness and family conflict. While we think having these talks should just be something we know how to do, it takes skills and practice.”

Preparing for the holidays can take a toll on even the most resilient people. There many resources available from the American Counselors Association, Mayo Clinic, The American Institute of Stress, American Heart Association and more. Read more as Parks-Savage shares tips to help you successfully navigate this holiday season of festive gatherings.

Can you be everywhere for everyone?

The simple answer is no – it’s not possible to be everywhere for everyone. Well, I take that back. You can do it, but chances are you won’t do it well. Some of you might be thinking, isn’t everything optional? Sure, we know this in our head, but often our heart tells us something different. Try this instead: list all the things you have to do and places you need to be for the holidays. Ask yourself which of the items are an obligation or optional. Some might overlap, so work through the list with someone who knows you well and create a plan.

Let’s use the example of being invited to your family gathering as well as your spouse’s family event. You think both are equally important, but you can’t be at both events at or near the same time. Knowing this could be a tough conversation with you both, you can try to say something like this: “I’d like to talk about our plans for each of our family holiday events. We want to go to both, but that doesn’t usually turn out well. Let’s talk about some ideas we can live with, while making both of our families happy." This conversation opens a dialogue between you and your partner to come to a solution together. The choices can be attending one of the family events as scheduled and then arrange a different time to be with the other family. Let them know you are excited to get them all to yourselves. You can switch it up next year, or you can host the event and invite both sets of families.

Another example is the workplace holiday party. For some, work parties are just not their “thing” and that’s okay. If co-workers are putting the pressure on you to join the party, you can say, “I am glad you all are excited. I have other commitments that are a priority for me, but know I want you all to have a great time.” You show you’re not being a humbug; you just have other commitments that have a different meaning to you.

When it’s not a joyful time of year for all.

The holidays may be challenging for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, are battling through an illness or worsening depression or anxiety. It’s hard enough to get through the holidays without these added losses and experiences. Here are some ways to navigate these sensitive conversations.

If you are concerned for someone going through struggles, try this: “I know this isn’t an easy time for you, but I care about what you are going through and I am here. Don’t be surprised if I check-in with you. You don’t have to reply, and I would understand.” This conveys your acknowledgment of what they are going through and letting the person know you care and can be present for them. In today’s world of texting and emails, sometimes this conversation adds an extra heartfelt hug when it is said in person. You can also consider writing a personal message in a card and mailing it to their home.

If you are struggling, try reaching out to others with this, “I know it’s the holidays and people have reached out to me. Don’t take my quietness as being rude. Know that your messages mean a lot to me, and I just need the time to work through this tough patch.” People who care about you truly want to know you have a support team of family, friends or professionals. Letting them know can ease their worries for you. You should also consider accepting their help.

Handling conflict with family.

How can it be that the very same people you were raised with since childhood, could be the source of major conflict during the holidays? These same family members that you may only have limited in-person access to throughout the year are now trapped under one roof for a long holiday weekend. There is an expectation that the holiday season creates this magical time-out for any arguments and conflicts with the same people with whom you share a bloodline. We would like to think this is manageable, but some of the pains of the past and current times can run deep and dark. Communication becomes more than just difficult, it becomes toxic.

How do you get through a hurtful conversation? When the person says something unkind, try saying this in a calm voice: “This is not the time or place for this conversation. If you cannot talk to me or act in respectful way, I ask that you say nothing or leave. The choice is yours. What would you like to do?”  This sets a limit of what behavior is acceptable. You also give the other person the choice to stay or go. Sometimes these situations can become more entangled than they need to be, so a healthier choice might be you making the decision to leave the space.  

Pulling it all together.

Hopefully, getting through difficult conversations is just a small part of your holiday season. Keep practicing those communication skills and over time you will create a tool kit of communication strategies to get you through some tough talks. It’s also important to know that you are not alone. About 38% of Americans who are stressed during the holidays think about going to a therapist to address their worries. Therefore, consider yourself in good company. It’s never too early, or too late, to reach out for professional support.

If you need mental health support, please reach out to the Employee Assistance Program at EVMS by calling 1-800-899-8174.

If you are in a mental health crisis, go to your nearest emergency department or call 911.

Here are some other mental health emergency contacts available 24 hours a day/7 days a week:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Norfolk CSB Emergency Services and Crisis Hotline: 757-664-7690
  • Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center Crisis Hotline: 757-627-LIFE (757-627-5433)
  • 24/7 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988

Agatha Parks-Savage has long dark hair, is wearing a black shirt and smiles at the camera


Agatha Parks-Savage, EdD, LPC, RN, is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Professor of Family and Community Medicine and Associate Dean and Associate Designated Institutional Official of Graduate Medical Education at EVMS. She is also a Certified Executive, Physician & Life Coach and Certified Trainer, Crucial Conversations® for Mastering Dialogue.