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Expert Advice

Help your loved ones make the most of their holidays

The countdown to the holidays can be stressful. For people dealing with challenges like grief, divorce, or illness, that stress can feel even more intense. They may worry that they’ll ruin the holiday for others by failing to muster enough holiday cheer. They may feel pressure to take on obligations that they’re not quite up for. If your loved one or friend is struggling this holiday season, you can relieve some of their stress by helping them plan an “intentional” holiday—that is, one they spend how they want, not how they think others want them to spend it.

An intentional holiday takes some planning ahead, which has the added benefit of giving people a sense of control over their lives and happiness.1 And being intentional about the holidays can reduce the chances of misunderstandings and hurt feelings, because it means getting people on the same page about what to expect.

Follow these steps to help your friend or loved one create a holiday that works best for them.

Read the tips

Acknowledge that this holiday may be hard

Life has changed, so it makes sense that the holidays will change as well. It can help to acknowledge that out loud. Encourage your friend to let go of the pressure to live up to past holidays. You can find tips for starting a conversation like this here.


Let them decide who they want to be with...

Your friend might feel pressure to spend time with people during the holidays, even though they don’t feel up to it. Encourage them to see only who they want to see. Just asking them who they want to spend the holidays with can be empowering, because it gives them permission to make the best choice for themselves.

If your friend is separated from their support network because of distance or other factors, talk with them about strategies for staying connected. This could include scheduling calls or video chats, writing letters, or making special gifts to give in person in the future.


...And give them space if they need it

People deal with difficult situations in different ways. Some of us need our friends and family close by, while others need some space. Trust that your friend knows what they need better than anyone else. That said, there are ways you can remind them they aren’t truly alone while still respecting their boundaries. Let them know that you’ll be checking in with them. You can text, email, call, quietly leave cookies at their door, or stop by for a brief visit. Ask which option they prefer.


Take some holiday planning off their plate

If your friend wants company, gather the right people and start hashing out the details. The goal is to help your friend enjoy the day by taking some of the work off their plate. Make a holiday plan together. If there’s a holiday dinner, prepare a menu, make a shopping list, and figure out who’s in charge of what. If your friend looks forward to a holiday concert every year, decide who will get the tickets.


Talk about traditions

For people who have experienced a big change, traditions can be a source of comfort—or a painful reminder of what they’ve lost. Talk to your friend about what feels right. Are there traditions they want to keep? Do they want to start something new? If they’ve lost or are separated from someone they love, you might suggest honoring that person in some way—say, by lighting a candle or making a donation in their memory. If that’s too painful, skip it. This is all about what feels right.


Tell them it’s okay to take a break

A favorite song, the smell of a roasting turkey, a special ornament—they can all bring back memories of happier holidays. It’s okay to cry, take breaks, or change plans. Think about how to quietly help your friend take a moment alone if they need it, especially if you’re spending time in a group.


Encourage self-compassion

Remind your friend not to feel guilty for any perceived missteps they might make—and if they can, to forgive others for the same. Everyone screws up from time to time. We all say or do hurtful or thoughtless things without meaning to. This is hard, and we’re not perfect. But every interaction gives us a chance to try again.


Commit to being there beyond the holidays

The holidays can be especially tough, but it’s important to remember that other times of year can be hard, too—like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and weddings. As others get back to their post-holiday routines, those who are struggling may feel support dwindle.2 You can do simple things to be there for the long haul. Set a reminder to send a text message regularly to let your friend or loved one know you’re thinking about them. Mark key dates in your calendar and commit to calling when they come around.

You may not be able to make this holiday everything you want for those who matter to you. But with a little planning, you can help make it better—and maybe even help your friends or loved ones find a measure of joy and peace.


  1. Prenda, K. M., and M. E. Lachman. 2001. “Planning for the future: A life management strategy for increasing control and life satisfaction in adulthood.” Psychology and Aging 16(2): 206-216.
  2. Norris, F. H., and K. Kaniasty. 1996. “Received and perceived social support in times of stress: A test of the social support deterioration deterrence model.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 7: 498-511.