Surviving the Holidays with a Dysfunctional Family

Surviving the Holidays with a Dysfunctional Family

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The holiday season is a taxing time for many of us. Studies suggest that eight out of ten adults experience elevated stress levels during the winter months. One of the biggest sources of anxiety is family gatherings. Dysfunctional and toxic family dynamics can dredge up old memories and cause tension around the dinner table.


Though you can't change your family, you can approach these holiday gatherings with realistic expectations and a few healthy coping mechanisms. Here are some of our top suggestions for managing dysfunctional family dynamics this holiday season.


1.) Assume that nobody has changed.


The holiday season is full of cheery songs and tear-inducing family films. Unfortunately, getting sentimental and hopeful about loving transformations is precisely the wrong approach to the holiday season. Instead, remind yourself that your family is likely to remain the same. If one of your relatives always gets drunk and makes snarky comments, expect it to happen again this year. Those who endure judgmental remarks throughout the year should expect this thoughtlessness to be amplified during the holiday season. Though this may seem pessimistic, this approach generally results in less heartbreak in the long run. By accepting things as they are, you can better limit the power your family has over your emotional well-being.


2.) Make plans and create structure.


Family dysfunction often rears its head in conversation. Snide remarks and passive-aggressive exchanges most often occur when everyone is sitting around, snacking and chatting. Though it might seem silly, consider planning a few family activities to prevent this idle time from turning into hours of upsetting talk. Play a few board games as a family. If your family is highly competitive, form balanced teams to create a less intense atmosphere. Another enjoyable option is watching a favorite movie together. Even preparing food together can be a reprieve from hours of family chitchat. By making your holiday gathering one of doing rather than talking, you can potentially reduce the toxicity of your family dynamic.


3.) Keep the conversation casual.


Enmeshed in an old family dynamic during the holidays, you may find yourself drawn to the idea of resolving long-standing family issues. Though many of us would like to clear up childhood traumas and change our relatives' minds regarding certain subjects, these conversations rarely go as planned. Instead, keep your family discussions as casual as possible. Avoid emotional issues and heated topics like politics. Do you best to avoid situations where you'll be forced to defend yourself or apologize. If a conversation becomes too intense, excuse yourself from the room and spend a few minutes cooling off. Save these intense family conversations for another time.


4.) Provide yourself with an escape hatch.


Sometimes, spending time with your family can be too much to handle. One cruel remark might cut too deep. Manipulative behaviors might trigger feelings of frustration and bitterness. In these situations, you may need to simply escape for a while. If you anticipate these behaviors at your family party, make it clear that you are only staying for a few hours. If you're visiting from out of town, stay at a hotel and book a rental car. Even if you're staying with family, you can step outside for a while to clear your head. Though you cannot change your family and their behaviors, you can always create boundaries that limit your exposure to them. Give yourself permission to leave if you're feeling unhappy.


5.) Let it out.


After the holidays, get together with your friends or a sympathetic family member. Now you can vent! Recall all of the hypocritical behavior and toxic relationship dynamics. If you can bring yourself to laugh at the ridiculous nature of your family's dysfunction, allow yourself to do so. Swap tales with your pals and compare notes regarding your holiday struggles. Though complaining about your family's crazy behaviors won't bring them to an end, processing these moments with others can be truly cathartic. Few of us are blessed with perfectly well-behaved families. Getting your holiday tales off of your chest will allow you to relax and move on with your life in the year to come.


In Conclusion:


Though family dysfunction often reaches a peak during the holidays, you don't have to be the victim of others' bad behavior. By approaching family gatherings with reasonable expectations and a plan, you can spare yourself some of the emotional discomfort associated with many family get-togethers.




Photo: (c) tawesit /

Editor, 12/15/2016