5 Tips for managing family and food-related holiday stress
Food and family are central components of many celebrations, and the holidays are no exception.
The end-of-the-year holidays are marked by get-togethers with family and friends, which can mean different things to different people – ranging from joy and jubilation to anxiety and stress.
As the year comes to an end, your clients may be coming to you wondering how to navigate challenging holiday moments and exchanges. Some of their anxieties may be food-related, family-related, or both. As a health, nutrition, wellness, or fitness coach, you can provide some useful tips to support your clients in building a healthy outlook around this time.
This article suggests five tips you can relay to your coaching clients about navigating food and family during the holidays.
How to Talk to Clients About Potential Holiday Stressors
Depending on your personal coaching process, it may not be easy bringing up the holidays and any stress your clients may feel around this time.
However, you can use a Motivational Interviewing (MI) approach to bring up the topic and give clients an opportunity to talk about it. Rather than commanding or directing them to share information that might be sensitive or that they might not feel comfortable talking about, you can use trauma-informed principles to open the door to discussing it.
For example, a way to bring up holiday stressors could be, “I know you are eating a plant-based diet, but you mentioned your family members are avid meat-eaters. Tell me about how this might be stressful for you.”
This touches on the subject of holiday and family stressors, but it also assumes it is a point of contention between your client and their family. You may be inadvertently causing stress where there was previously none.
Instead, consider using the trauma-informed principles of empowerment, voice, and choice to frame the subject differently. One way of bringing up potential holiday stressors is by saying, “The holidays are right around the corner. Would you feel comfortable sharing if and how you usually observe the end-of-year holidays?”
Then you can follow up with another question that gives your client an opportunity to reflect on how the coming holidays may differ from past holidays or a chance to talk about things that they are anticipating (both positive and negative) about the holidays.
For example, after asking if they are open to discussing the holidays, you might ask them, “What are you anticipating about the holidays this year?”
This open-ended question could lead you in many directions. Your client might want to talk about the great events they are looking forward to, anticipated family contention, or nervousness about preparing Thanksgiving dinner for the first time on their own, among others.
By asking the question in this way, you avoid assuming holiday food and family are stressful for your client. Naturally, you will learn about your client’s perspective on the holidays. It is also respectful of their choice to talk about the subject at all.
You can learn more about motivational interviewing techniques by reading the following articles:
Potential Food and Family-Related Holiday Stressors
A 2006 American Psychological Association report stated that 44% of women and 31% of men experience an increase in stress during the holidays, while only 4% of women and 12% of men experience a decrease in stress during the holidays. A much more recent study conducted by the APA in 2021 found that some of the primary holiday stressors include:
- Affording holiday gifts
- Finding and securing holiday gifts
- Affording holiday meals
- Spreading or contracting COVID-19 at a holiday gathering
- Working long hours
- Traveling for the holidays
- Discussing politics
- Spending time with family
Some more specific holiday food- and family-related stressors include:
- Being criticized or shamed on the basis of body size or shape
- Being criticized or shamed on the basis of dietary habits, regimes, or choices
- Having dietary habits at odds with the family’s usual habits
- Concern about losing progress on food-related health behavior change
- Traumaversaries, or anniversaries of a traumatic event around the holidays
- Contention around family changes or news, such as divorce or separation, loss of a family member, coming out, a new partner or child, or changes in the location of celebrations
- Stress around gift-giving, including how much was spent and who gave who what
- Stress around parenting when the kids are on vacation
- Having trouble managing expectations
Without a doubt, the list of potential holiday stressors is nearly endless. A stressor that might be slightly uncomfortable for one person could be paralyzing for another. In the next section, this article suggests five tips you can offer clients who are experiencing all different types of stressors.
5 Ways You Can Support Your Coaching Clients Manage Food- and Family-Related Stressors
Help Them Identify Clear Boundaries
Boundaries are vital to self-care. Boundaries are guidelines or limits of how you would like to be treated, and they let others know what is not an acceptable way to treat you or talk to you.
The University of Illinois Chicago states, “[Boundaries] honor our needs and wants so that we feel respected and safe.”
Many people are not aware of their own boundaries and, as a result, are unprepared to protect themselves from feeling stress and discomfort. The holidays are no exception.
You can work with your client to help them identify boundaries around holiday communications and interactions. Here are some suggested steps on how to go about doing this:
- State that your client, like all people, is a person worthy of dignity and respect. Ask them to reflect on this statement. It is important that they work on believing it, too.
- Remind your client that they are responsible for protecting themselves and their well-being. Just like they are the main character in making health behavior changes in their own lives, they must also be the main character in protecting their wellbeing.
- Ask your client to visualize upcoming holiday interactions. Ask them to verbalize what would make them feel unsafe or disrespected, trying to be specific about why those exchanges make them feel that way. Some examples of boundary violations include verbal violations, psychological and emotional violations, and physical violations.
- Then, ask them to visualize modifications in these interactions that would make them feel safe and respected.
- Finally, work with them to set concrete boundaries they can state. Ideally, they will write these down to refer to later. Some examples of what these boundaries might sound like include:
- Accepting one invitation to holiday functions per week
- Not going over budget with holiday gifting
- Taking a break while hosting Not allowing people to freely comment on their body, that of their family members or their partner
- Not allowing people to freely comment on their eating habits or dietary choices
Practice Setting Boundaries
Supporting your client in identifying their needs puts a crucial step out of the way. Once they have set their boundaries, they can practice making choices and communicating in a way that respects those boundaries.
Your clients should expect pushback from family and friends as they begin to assert their boundaries, and they should feel prepared to respond.
You can support your client by setting up role-playing activities where your client plays themself and you play the family or friend from whom they expect to attempt to violate boundaries or some level of pushback.
Having some key responses in mind can help facilitate these communications. For example, if your client has set a clear boundary around sticking to their plant-based diet during a Christmas gathering, you can work with them to state boundaries when their aunt begins to try and convince them to eat turkey. They can say something like, “thank you, but no thank you. I’ve been feeling great since I’ve started eating a plant-based diet, and while your turkey looks delicious, I’m going to pass. Thank you, though!”
Practicing setting these boundaries out loud can help prepare your clients for facing moments of boundary violations.
Find an Ally
Allies are people who are willing and able to advocate for you. This is especially useful when you are unaccustomed to communicating your boundaries or if family members or friends make it especially difficult for you to do so.
Having a trusted friend, partner, cousin, sibling, or parent by your side during stressful holiday interactions can help put you at ease.
You can help your client identify an ally to whom they feel comfortable confiding in to express their discomforts and boundaries and who they trust to help support them in asserting these boundaries. For example, a sibling who can comfortably ask a cousin to avoid making comments about your client’s body can help save your client from frustration and discomfort.
Self-compassion is when you adopt an attitude of warmth and understanding when you feel like you have failed, are feeling down, or are feeling inadequate. Having negative feelings toward yourself might happen when you do not follow through with setting your boundaries or feel you have taken a step back in working toward your health goals.
Progress is not linear and, as health behavior change science tells us, taking steps backward is normal.
During the holiday season, routines change, as do the people with whom we regularly interact. When these things change, it is not realistic for most people to stick to their regular eating and exercise habits, and we may miss an opportunity to set a boundary during a family function. Both of these are okay!
Cultivating self-compassion makes it easier for your clients to recognize mistakes, setbacks, or simply differences in routine and allow them to move forward without remorse.
Remember that Sustainability Is the Goal
When it comes to health behavior change, no single meal, single day, or single interaction means much in the grand scheme of things. Food is a normal and wonderful part of many celebrations, and it is likely that it is not food you eat every day. It is okay for your clients to eat more than they normally would. It is okay for them to eat different foods. It is okay to give their body a rest.
These behaviors are a normal part of being human and enjoying life. For long-term behavior change to last, it needs to be sustainable and fit with all the seasons. If a health behavior change goal and its limits cause your client to feel miserable and limited during the holidays (or any other time of year, for that matter), it is unlikely they will feel compelled to keep it up for a lifetime.
The stress of the holidays can be challenging for many people. Food- and exercise-related stress is common in clients who have specific goals related to these topics and who have made progress but are not yet confident in weathering the changes that come about in their routine during the holidays.
As their health, nutrition, wellness, or fitness coach, you can support them in preparing for the holiday season by identifying and setting boundaries, learning to have self-compassion, and reminding them that having different habits during the holidays than during the rest of the year is absolutely normal and healthy.
For more holiday resources, check out these articles: