For many families, the holiday season can be a joyous time, with opportunities to enjoy friends and family and take breaks from school pressures or work deadlines. For others, the holidays can be a stressful time of the year as well.

Financial pressures, unstructured time off from school, extended stays from relatives, and dreary weather can impact our moods. Fortunately, being intentional with holiday plans that support bonding within our families can build resilience for those who face difficulties this time of year.

“Family” may have different definitions for different individuals. For some, “family” refers to their families of origin. The Community Resilience Initiative (, however, uses the broad, universal term “family” to refer to healthy, functioning membership associations, regardless of size or purpose. Therefore, the term “family” may apply to our friends, coworkers, faith communities, sports teams or schools.

The research on resilience tell us that when individuals feel well-connected to their families, both the individual’s and family’s resilience increases. When a family meets our psychological needs, we feel more connected and committed to that family’s norms, values and goals. For example, if students feel connected to their school and supported by teachers and peers, they are more likely to attend school, participate in extracurricular activities and follow the rules. The well-bonded and resilient family may not be able to avoid stress, but when stressors occur, family members are equipped to handle those stressors as a team and thrive after adversity.

One way to strengthen family connections is through celebrations. Celebrations this time of year often look like holiday meals, faith traditions, New Year’s Eve parties or work luncheons. Research tells us these celebrations, rituals and traditions provide stability during times of stress and transition for families. For example, for a family that has moved to a new home, is newly separated or divorced, or has lost a family member, maintaining consistency from previous years’ celebrations may be a powerful stabilizer.

Family celebrations can be more than just birthdays, weddings and graduations. Celebrations in daily life, such as family dinners or weekend activities, also can bond us together. If Saturday morning pancakes are a ritual in your family, then formalize it into a pancake party. Although they may seem frivolous, celebrations and rituals are an important and fun aspect of building well-bonded families and creating meaning in life.

Luckily, celebrations do not need to cost money or include expensive gifts and extravagant gestures. Research tells us that intentional acts of kindness also can be incredibly meaningful. When we take the time to show our family members that we appreciate their presence in our lives, miss them when they are not there, and recognize their hard work for our family, we create stronger bonds.

As you and your family enter into the holiday season, keep in mind these tips for celebrations:

» Know the Who, What, Why and How you want to celebrate. This thoughtful intention will make a more impactful celebration for those attending.

» Celebrate the small things. Not every achievement needs to be as big as a promotion or A+ grade. Sometimes, surviving a difficult week at work or day at school is reason to celebrate. When we celebrate the small things in life with intentionality, life with others is more meaningful.

» Preparing for the celebration is half the fun. Individuals can build excitement and help plan for the activities.

To learn more about building family resilience, contact for upcoming training opportunities and family support programs.

VITAL SIGNS This column, which promotes community health, is sponsored by Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Region Ten Community Services Board, Thomas Jefferson Health District and the University of Virginia Heath System.

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Emily Warren is the Region Ten Community Services Board prevention director. Sara Robinson is a child and family outpatient and crisis director.

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