“Home for the holidays” sounds heartwarming, but it can easily morph into “the nightmare before (and during) Christmas.” The hectic weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day are already chock-full of obligations. The thought of spending time with family members capable of pushing your every button can make you dream of a tropical island getaway.

Conflicting emotions

Even the happiest families can face stress at holiday parties. Pauline Wallin, PhD, a psychologist in Camp Hill, Pa., says family get-togethers can dredge up emotions deeply rooted in childhood. Resentment toward parents, old sibling rivalries, and feelings of competitiveness or jealousy can come to a boil. The boundary between then and now starts to blur, says Dr. Wallin, author of Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide to Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior. The most mature adult can regress to a petulant child in the midst of family.

Adding spouses, children, and perhaps stepchildren shifts family dynamics. That can lead to anxiety and conflicts among generations, says New York psychologist Carol Goldberg, PhD.

Take it easy

Here are some tips for your holiday get-togethers:

  • Leave your inner brat at home, Dr. Wallin says. You’re not entitled to something just because you want it. Don’t have a tantrum if everyone decides to open gifts on Christmas Eve even though you want to do it on Christmas Day.
  • Keep expectations hopeful but realistic. Foreseeing problems makes them easier to deal with should they arise. If this turns out to be the year family tensions melt away, you can be pleasantly surprised.
  • Don’t take everything personally. Everyone is an individual with moods and desires separate from their relationship with you. If something angers or disappoints you, think about what triggered the feeling, then let it go.
  • Focus on parts of the get-together you enjoy. Relax as you trim the tree. Before you know it, it will be time to go home and tell everyone what a great holiday you had!