9 Ways To Survive Your Dysfunctional Family Over the Holidays


‘You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’. Ain’t that the truth? We all dream to have a family Christmas like the ones we see in movies or in Instagram stories, but real life gets in the way. Don’t get me wrong, spending time with family is wonderful. It’s just that when it comes to the holiday season, attending family get-togethers is like waiting for fireworks to go off.

There’s always someone putting you in the spotlight with their uncomfortable questions about marriage, babies, career or whatever other subject irks you most. It’s even more difficult to keep up with the Christmas spirit when you have some truly dysfunctional family members and you always feel like having to walk on eggshells around them.

To help you survive the holidays and the unpleasant antics of your family members, here are 9 things experts recommend you do. Good luck!

Here’s what experts have to say about it
“Holidays are tough,” says Connie Podesta, author of Life Would Be Easy If It Weren’t For Other People. “You’ve got high expectations, childhood memories we either want to duplicate or totally forget. And we have family members that literally drive us crazy, all smashed together at a table eating lots of carbs and sugar. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

According to Pat Pearson, clinical psychotherapist and author of Stop Self-Sabotage, no matter what you do, don’t forget that people don’t usually change, holiday or not. In essence, they remain the same. You know from past experiences how things are gonna go down, so, it’s up to you to do something for yourself this year to make the holidays more bearable. Here’s what.


Change your expectations

If you want to make your Christmas less of a struggle, adjust your expectations. “Aim for enjoyable, not perfect. Keep expectations manageable. Recognize that being together 24/7 may cause tensions, and allow for this,” suggests counselor Sophie Thorne, PG Dip MBACP Accred. She recommends finding time for yourself instead of dedicating all of your time to activities for your family.

As for the people usually making you uncomfortable, don’t expect them to be reasonable and kind just because it’s Christmas. Hoping people will be different this year will only set you up for disappointment. Avoid the urge to stoop to their level and try to be the better and wiser person. Focus on your behavior and reactions, not theirs. It might seem difficult but it’s not impossible.


Don’t expect to solve old problems

Don’t turn Christmas into an opportunity to settle the score and heal childhood wounds. With toxic family members, just stick to general, safe topics, nothing too personal. Don’t dwell on past conversations that didn’t go well and don’t enter new arguments or debates that will only ruin your mood.

If a conversation with one of your family members makes you want to snap at them, politely extract yourself from the conversation or try to change the subject. If it works, great. If not, there’s no need for you to apologize or defend yourself for not wanting to be part of something that makes you cringe.


Take a deep breath — or more

Can’t physically extract yourself from an unpleasant situation? Focus on your breathing instead. Take five slow, deep breaths, or more, if five don’t calm you down fast enough, breathing in and out. According to Diep Ho, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho San Diego., this breathing technique can significantly reduce your stress and anxiety levels.

Again, focus on what you can change about yourself. “You can’t change what your difficult relatives are going to do,” says Dr. Ho. Putting your energy into trying to change others is pointless. You do you and let them fall into their own pits.


Put the “fun” in dysfunctional

Remember that not everything about family get-togethers over the holidays is bad. Focus on the positives and put the “fun” in dysfunction. Try to think of things you like doing with your family, activities that everyone enjoys without creating any drama.

“If there is lots of unstructured time, that’s when the old dysfunction can arise,” says Pat. To prevent that from happening, focus on family traditions like watching your favorite films, playing board games that involve everyone, tell in-jokes that only your family understand or share family memories.

RELATED: 17 Disagreements Even Happy Couples Have During The Holidays


Set your boundaries

If someone is doing something that is making you feel uncomfortable, try not to take it personally. People’s actions and behaviors reflect their true self, which, in most cases, has nothing to do with you. It’s just who they are and what they thrive in.

This doesn’t mean you just have to accept everything that’s being thrown at you. You just have to remind yourself not to take the bait and tactfully change the topic if you get cornered. You can say something like “Why don’t we talk about something else?” or “This topic is too serious for today. How’s the weather back in Ohio?”. Some people use their words to sting like jellyfish, but do you know what some recommend as a cure for the jellyfish sting? Look it up and follow the advice when it comes to their toxic behavior…metaphorically, speaking, of course!


Control what you can control

Whether someone in your family has caused you pain in the past or constantly insults you every chance they get, use holiday time to work on yourself and become immune to toxic comments. When you meet toxic with strength and positivity, you are in control of your emotions and don’t hand them over to anyone else.

Navigating a dysfunctional family landscape is not easy but every experience can help you become stronger and more efficient when managing family get-togethers. See also 5 Most Common Manipulation Tactics Used by Highly Toxic People.


Plan ahead

An efficient way to keep it together during a family gathering is to keep your visit short and sweet. That way, your family won’t have enough time to bombard you with their annoying questions and comments. More than that, you won’t have to make awkward small talk to extended family members you don’t really like or know that well.

If you are flying in, rent a car so you can come and go as you please, without relying on someone else. It’s ok to be the first one to go, if this is what you want. If you’re spending the holidays at your family’s house, whenever you feel like taking a break from your family, go for a walk or see an old friend. “Don’t feel guilty if you need some time out for yourself. Determine how involved and accommodating your plans should be well in advance, and make your limits known to others involved.”

Drink in moderation

While drinking might seem like a perfect escape from our nosy families, more often than not, it is one of the factors that generate family arguments. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional cocktail but one too many will make you more reactive. That’s because alcohol can be a treacherous foe.

It can trick you into thinking you’ve got everything under control, when in fact it only aggravates your thoughts, feelings and reactions. If you are already feeling stressed and on guard, the outcome is not going to be pretty. So, stay anchored in the present, avoid awful hangovers the next day and take things slowly, even if others might pressure you to drink more.


Look for cheerful moments

Keep in mind that this is real life, not some Hallmark Christmas movie. Don’t be disappointed if everything is not perfect. Look for joyful and cheerful moments and just enjoy the presence of your family without having false expectations. Just because you acknowledge that things are not always perfect, doesn’t mean you are a Grinch. Find things to be grateful for, like your friends, family, loved ones, even if things were sometimes bumpy between you.

RELATED: 7 Easy Tips to Enjoy Christmas Safely During COVID-19


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