By Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA, MFT

Holidays can be a very stressful time in general – but if you were raised in a dysfunctional family system, it can go beyond ordinary stress and enter the ‘danger’ or  ‘crisis’ zone very quickly , depending on how toxic your current family system dynamics are. In this article I share ten strategies that have helped my psychotherapy clients feel more at ease during family events via careful planning, self-caring acts, and having realistic expectations.

Holiday Gatherings With Dysfunctional Family Can Be Stressful

It is common to have  high expectations when thinking of family gatherings; alternatively, you might fear that your worst expectations will be realized if you get together with nuclear and/or extended family members for a holiday gathering of some kind. 

It can be especially mentally and emotionally stressful to have to face the holiday season when you have had acutely difficult experiences with one or more family members in the past – including during your childhood. Such complex dynamics can make this time of year fraught with difficult decisions and choices for adult survivors of dysfunctional families.

It’s critical that you remember that just because it is the holiday season doesn’t mean that anyone in your family has changed the way they behave or the manner in which they treat you. The one thing you do have control over is your own choices and responses. Below are my ten strategies for surviving the holiday season if you choose to spend it with your family (#10 specifically addresses those who are not in contact with family at this time):

1. Ride the tiger – but know when to get off

Engaging with your dysfunctional family system can be a bit like riding a multi-headed beast. Some ways of being and patterns of behavior have been going on in your family for decades-upon-decades, and have  been passed down unconsciously from generation to generation. Suffice it to say that there are tremendous psychic forces at play, and so in some ways, you are “walking where angels fear to tread” when engaging with your dysfunctional family-of-origin, whether it is the holidays or not. 

Remember that you can only control what is in your power to control: Your own behavior and responses. Use any holiday experiences you choose to have with your family as a means of becoming an even stronger person.

Never forget that when you greet dysfunction with healthy functioning you are succeeding in not placing your well-being into someone else’s hands. And that is a true victory, and something to celebrate during the holidays when engaging with your dysfunctional family.

2. Plan for the typical and expected

You likely already know what might trigger you or set you off at a family event (e.g., “Are you really going to have seconds? Aren’t you worried about your weight?”) Know what your limits are and do what you can to structure the time with your dysfunctional family in advance. For example, know your arrival time and know what time it might be best for you to leave (if you are in ‘light contact’ with family, two or three hours at a holiday gathering should suffice). 

Consider renting a car if you are flying in so you have the freedom to come and go. And do not stay with your family if you know that you cannot be around them for long – Arrange to stay at a hotel or a short-term vacation rental, e.g., VRBO or Airbnb. Planning out your “survival strategies” ahead of time – before the family gathering – is something that you can work out with your therapist or coach if you have one long before the holidays ever arrive. 

Be sure you have some “go-to” self-care strategies in place long before you go. Some of my therapy clients arrange to meet family in a public place, like a restaurant, as it does not feel safe for them emotionally to go to the dysfunctional family members’ home, so this is something else you might try.

3. Accept the truth of who people are – And don’t expect them to change

If a family member has behaved in a disrespectful or even abusive manner toward you in the past, don’t expect this behavior to change just because it is the holidays. In fact, family tensions can increase during special events, causing people to behave in unexpected (and sometimes harmful) ways. If someone drinks too much and becomes verbally aggressive or even violent, this won’t change just because it is supposed to be a ‘happy’ time of year. 

Don’t expect people to be any different from who they have been, as they are unlikely to act any differently this year than they have in the past. Letting go of fantasies that “this year will be different” will help to protect you from further disappointment. If things go better than anticipated, enjoy it, but don’t count on it being this way in the future. 

4. Don’t try and discuss ways you have been wounded and hurt in the past

Holiday gatherings with your dysfunctional family are not conducive to repairing past childhood wounds or hurts. The best thing to do when you are interacting with various family members is to keep the conversation simple (think “light and polite”). It is easy to get caught up in various family dramas and debates (political ones, especially) – but do your best not to fall into this trap or you’ll just find yourself “wrestling with a pig in the mud” – and everyone gets ‘dirty’ in the end.  

If you feel yourself getting triggered (i.e., you might feel your heart-rate speeding up, notice you are getting anxious, feel dissociated or ‘distant’, and/or feel like you want to lash out in anger at someone) simply take a few, long, deep breaths and  excuse yourself from the conversation. 

Take a short walk outside, look at nature, count backwards by 7 from 100 (this gets the mind focused on something else less intense), or take a ‘time-out’ in the bathroom away from everyone (it is a good idea to bring a daily meditation book that you can read so you can regroup while you are there). When you return, focus on those people you feel okay being around – ideally, people you genuinely like and who like you in return. And keep taking deep breaths!

5. Envision your energetic boundaries and stay in your ‘white bubble of light’ 

If you come from an enmeshed and/or abusive family system, you may be used to family members violating your boundaries repeatedly; you may even avoid being around family because you are not sure how to protect yourself from such emotionally aggressive – even hostile – behavior. 

If you choose to be around family that you know may treat you badly at a holiday gathering, be prepared for the worst and plan accordingly. I suggest to clients that they imagine they are surrounded by a ball of white light – they are protected within this light and nothing but loving energy is allowed in. Any hurtful comments from others just bounce off this white shield of light. 

Remember, no one has the right to behave disrespectfully or abusively toward you. If someone tries to put you off balance, remind yourself that they are the ones that have the problem – not you. The manner in which people act and behave is a reflection of who they are and has nothing to do with you, in the end. 

6. Consider bringing an “ally” to help ‘buffer’ dysfunctional dynamics

If you know that your family is particularly aggressive in general, it is a good idea to bring an “ally” with you to the holiday gathering – a friend or significant other who loves you and can support you and even act as a ‘buffer’ when you are with your family. Even your pet can serve as an ally and a buffer, if it is possible to bring them with you and keep them safe.

I recommend that you and your (human!) ally agree upon a signal of some sort that you can use if you are feeling trapped or ensnared by family and need help to get away. For example, tugging on your ear or scratching your nose are ways to signal your ally that you are struggling and need their help and intervention. Your ally can interrupt and ask something like, “Seen any good movies lately?” to get the conversation on a different track. 

Even though it can be difficult, do your best to not personalize hurtful, insensitive comments. Remind yourself that the aggressor is simply being true to their nature and trying to get you to “wrestle in the mud” with them. See it for what it is and imagine yourself flying above it all, unharmed. 

7. Help to structure the time – Charades, puzzles, and games!

Even the most dysfunctional family can sometimes find activities they enjoy doing together. Some families enjoy watching sports on TV or playing charades or cards. Think of how you might help your family structure time in a manner that invites positive interactions (board games? puzzles?) and then do your best to help make that happen. You might be surprised when you leave with a new holiday memory to cherish – one you never expected. “Believe nothing – Entertain possibilities”!

8. Gather family history – your therapist will thank you

Holidays are also a great time to play “Family Systems Detective” and try and unearth some valuable family history, especially from any senior family members (going through photo albums often invites and encourages these types of sharings). The more you learn about your family – especially possible traumatic events, i.e., unexpected deaths, divorce, missing family members, addiction, suicide, etc – the more you (and your therapist, if you have one) may be able to identify multi-generational patterns that might increase your understanding of possible inter-generational trauma, as well as family system ‘roles’ (who was the scapegoat, ‘golden child’, caretaker, clown, etc, in generations before you?), which all can be very helpful in regard to your healing and recovery process.

9. Breathe deeply…And practice ‘radical acceptance’…

Remember that dysfunctional families are driven by primal, powerful inter and multi-generational forces. You did not cause it, you cannot cure it, and you can’t control it. Know when to stop trying to ‘ride the tiger’ and always act in a manner that serves you at the highest level

Although the aspiration to experience familial harmony is admirable, it is also important that you do not fall into the chasm that exists between the ‘actual’ and the ‘ideal’. Do your best to create moments that are meaningful to you. Arrive with your favorite holiday foods or decorations, for example. If the family gathering is at your own home, then leave time at the end of the evening after everyone has left to relax alone or with a loved one (pets included) and reflect upon the day while listening to your favorite holiday music. Or grab your journal and go over what you are grateful for about how you were able to move through what might have been a difficult, challenging day as you acknowledge and celebrate your own recovery from dysfunctional family dynamics.

10. ‘No Contact’ during the holidays: A Special Note

For some, the only way to gain traction in their recovery from dysfunctional / narcissistic family abuse is to have no contact with their family-of-origin at all – And this does not change just because it is the holiday season. Those who are not in contact with family by necessity and/or choice often feel caught in a ‘double bind’ (“damned if I do / damned if I don’t”) situation. The fact of the matter is, many adult survivors of dysfunctional family systems are shamed and stigmatized by society during what is, for them, often one of the hardest times of the year. 

Due to the importance of ‘no contact’ concerns as related to the holidays, I will be doing a separate article to address the many issues that arise for those who choose not to engage with their family-of-origin. What is most important is that you do whatever you need to do to protect your own well-being and recovery, no matter what time of year it is. Reflect carefully on what will serve you at the highest level – And find people who will support you in your efforts. 

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