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How to survive a family holiday when your family doesn’t get along. 

How to survive a family holiday when your family doesn’t get along. 

The holidays are marketed as hallmark moments of family togetherness. What happens when your family being together is a bad thing?  As a therapist, I help clients plan family holidays every year.

My clients often feel trapped or stuck by their family’s patterns.  They feel like they have no choice but to do the same old dance.  It can feel true, but folks have more freedom than they realize.

The good news is that you can make changes with your internal viewpoint or external behavior without relying on others to have their own “come to Jesus” moment.   This can give you enough breathing room to have a better experience.

A good rule of thumb is if a behavior causes resentment on your part, find another response that doesn’t.  This is easier said than done but once you have it down it tastes like freedom.  If you are asked to do something you don’t want to do offer an alternative instead of jumping into an argument.  If you know your definition of hell is Black Friday shopping do not appease, rather suggest alternatives that give your loved one the opportunity for bonding.  If your relative doesn’t respond well to tradition changes it may benefit you to inform them of your change in plans before the holidays arrive – it will give them some time to work through their initial response.   Many people can show up better when prepped.  You can even throw them a bone by saying, “I know we usually do insert whatever you want to avoid but I am really excited to do blank instead.”   Depending on your relative’s emotional bandwidth you can be honest with tactic – “My time with you is limited so I have thought about this a lot and I thinking it will be better because…”  Not all changes require such an announcement.  For example, if your mom solicits you for a gossip session about other family members that you hate listening to just change the subject.  Your response may take some planning, but it can give you confidence to try something different.   If there’s topic you know is going to come up that won’t go well, figure out the message you want to send and practice those lines to death, so it comes off as natural.   Have a neutral response for their rebuttal – you know your family well. If you can’t think of one run it by your most diplomatic friend.  They might have an idea.  Disengage when it goes south – even if it means faking having to go the bathroom or a work call.

We have multiple emotions when we feel something strongly yet often, we lead with one emotion whether it be anger, fear insert your strong emotion here.   You can be disappointed or fearful along with anger, yet you respond solely with a display of anger.  You can be hurt and confused by a behavior yet all you express is judgement.  Figure out what are your “go to” responses that get you in trouble (with others or yourself) then expand your emotional expression palate.  Your relatives are expecting your typical reactions.   Instead of rage express the fear underneath.   Choose to state your opinion instead of resentfully withdrawing.   Another example of this might be instead of raising your voice when asked inappropriate question get curious about why it is being asked.   Your relative might surprise you.

Some other tried but true family holiday survival ideas are:

If you are going to visit and can swing renting a hotel, do so.  It will give you down time away and yet still see your family.

If you have childhood friend in the area invite them over for brunch, dessert or a walk so you can catch up and blow off steam.   If not call a good friend when you have a minute for support or a break.

If you can plan some activities (on the day of or on one of those days surrounding the holiday when y’all are staring at each other) do so.  Examples are:

That cute Xmas craft you saw on Pinterest?  Maybe your folks can help you make them with your kids.

That movie you haven’t gotten a chance to see – set up a movie night.

Kick the soccer ball around with the nephews or learn to play Smite with your cousin.

Activities can keep you out of the fray.

If possible, want to do something you would like to do even if your family isn’t around, so you aren’t twisting yourself into a pretzel to accommodate.  Maybe you call up your sister or your folks beforehand ask is there any ideas they would want to try, a hike they always wanted to go on?  The opportunity to do something new can shake up old habits.  If not, everyone wants to participate in the new activity allow room for that – remember we are trying to decrease tension and boredom not increase it.  If Uncle Marty is more interested at shouting at the new or playing solitaire let him be.

You can walk the family pet – always a great excuse to get some air.

If you know something a member of the family would be interested to know/talk about initiate the conversation – sometimes people fall into dysfunctional dynamics simply because they don’t know how to have a different conversation.  Ex – “Hey Mom did you see this kitchen on Pinterest?”

Another idea is to look up the New York Times article about 36 questions to fall in love.  You can find one or two questions to ask family members at the dinner table or whenever and you might be surprised what you learn or how you connect.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to control the interactions between every family member – it is exhausting and a losing game.  And I hear you codependents that are saying “But,  I can make sure family gets along well” – my question to you is what does that cost you and is it a tab you can keep paying or does that pressure make you want to avoid your family altogether?

Write down a list on your phone of all the positive things you would like to hear at the holidays and read them to yourself when things get rough – it can be your very own pep talk.  It doesn’t have to be smarmy it can be “hey the holidays end soon and you get to go back home” & “you survived this before with less resources that you have now.”  Whatever feels true and comforting.

If you like to journal do so.

If you work out do so – anything physical helps burn off the hyper vigilant feelings.

Give no power to those ‘they always’ or ‘they never’ thoughts – they will not be your friend as you sit down next to Uncle George at the dinner table.  Those thoughts need to be put to bed for another time – whether that be in therapy, journaling, a shady Instagram post.  Some other opportunity when the pressure isn’t so high.

Don’t judge yourself on how others responded – that is theirs to work on.  Assess yourself on what your goals were and if an interaction went sideways what does that teach you.

Learn to accept that everyone is working out their stuff.  If your sister will always need to prove she is better than you let her and notice how sad it is that this is still happening instead of planning your rebuttal.  Now see I didn’t say to tell her how sad she is I said notice – this is an internal exercise my friends.

If your folks fight about politics maybe that’s just how they connect – thru conflict. You can disagree with the process, create something different in your own home without trying to control the family of origin homestead.  It is hard when you are growing to not want everyone to grow with you.  That doesn’t mean to accept being mistreated, you can always respond.  The difference can be in responding instead of reacting.  This isn’t probably the day where your family will resolve everything that went wrong – and that’s probably a good thing as it would make it a very heavy day.

The point is in the end to do something different so you can show up different.  To allow the ability for positive moment to happen. 

After it is over, plan something to look forward to once you get home.  See that friend that makes you laugh so hard your sides hurt.  Take a day off to just be at home.  Have the neighbors come to the fire pit with hot chocolate or hot toddies – whatever is your speed.   Watch that movie you never got the chance to see.  Listen to music loud – make it a celebration.





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