DBT Around the Christmas Tree (and other Family Holiday Events)

By Katie Herzer, LMSW | November 19, 2021

While the holidays are some people’s favorite time of year, they can be extra stressful or even dreadful for others. Wherever you fall on the holiday cheer spectrum, when getting together with family members who do not see eye to eye, missing loved ones, or feeling societal pressures to have your experience be a certain way, we can all benefit from some Holiday DBT Skills.

First, start with a couple of Distress Tolerance Skills to help calm your emotions during trying times. Use the Brief Vacation skill to separate yourself from your family members or holiday duties when your stress is rising. Walking away or doing something different can allow you to take a break in order to bring down your emotions, feel refreshed, and be more effective when you return to the turkey baking, latkes making, or holiday gift exchange. Distract with Contributing can be a great way to distract yourself from holiday woes by turning your distressed energy into compassionate energy. Volunteer at your local soup kitchen, contribute to the nearest toy drive, create something special for someone, foster an animal or volunteer at a shelter.

Next, an Emotion Regulation skill can help make the holiday season less of an emotional roller coaster. Try incorporating Accumulating Positive activities into your schedule. These are not things you do to make others happy, but things that you, yourself, truly enjoy and look forward to doing. Wear your favorite ugly Christmas sweater or fuzzy Thanksgiving socks, dance around to “Hanukkah, O Hanukkah,” play tennis with friends or go to the movies by yourself. Keep in mind, these could be things that take just a couple minutes; they don’t have to feel like another task on your holiday to-do list. It can be as something as small as adding a candy cane to your hot chocolate to make it extra special.

When dinner table conversations turn to topics that are controversial, revert to your Interpersonal Effectiveness skills. The GIVE skill can help maintain relationships. Gently respond by keeping your volume appropriate and choosing non-judgmental language. Show interest in what others are saying (even if you do not care about your cousin’s family’s trip to Kazakhstan) by making eye contact, nodding your head, and asking appropriate questions. Validate where the other person is coming from (even if you do not agree with your uncle’s views) by stating why it makes sense that they have those thoughts. Use an easy manner to add appropriate humor and turn an uncomfortable situation into a more lighthearted interaction.

Finally, try a Middle Path skill to help change your “Bah Humbug!” to “Happy Holidays!”  You can use dialectics when things get tough. Recognizing the two seemingly opposing things that are true at the same time can help you gain a more positive perspective when you’re stuck in black and white thinking. For example, change “If my parents comment on me being single one more time this year I will scream,” to “I feel annoyed when my parents ask me if I will ever find a spouse AND I know they are asking from love and showing me they care.” Replace, “I cannot afford to buy presents this year” with, “I am sad that I could not afford the gift my loved one wanted AND they will still like what I have handmade for them as it came from the heart.”


  • Hillside Therapist – Experience DBT Day Treatment Program - Katie Herzer is a DBT therapist living in Atlanta and working in Hillside’s Day Program. Katie has been one of the therapists in Hillside’s DBT Day Program since its inception. She is passionate about educating youth on skills that can better equip them on creating a life worth living. In her free time she enjoys going to live music and sporting events and spending time with her Bengal cat.

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