Dealing with a Dysfunctional Family During the Holidays

family dysfunction

For many, the holiday season is a time of merriment, gratitude, and reunion – we graciously accept time off work, pack our bags full of sweaters and gifts, and head home to spend time with our families. For us recovering alcoholics, however, returning home after a prolonged hiatus may seem like falling into a recurring childhood nightmare after several years of peaceful, uninterrupted sleep. It is not uncommon for people like us to come from entirely dysfunctional families; and if we do, returning home for the holidays may be more of an anxiety-producing and unpleasant reevaluation of past harms than a heart-warming familial gathering. Even if our entire family is not dysfunctional, it is likely that we have one alcoholic, red-faced uncle who loves to pick fights with his siblings, or one angst-filled, grudge-holding cousin who seems in constant opposition with the world at large.

Fortunately for us, there are several coping skills we can utilize in order to enjoy the holiday season without getting sucked backed into the toxicity of family dysfunction. When we keep the focus on ourselves, we will be able to keep family relationships alive and well without putting our own mental and emotional well-being at risk – without falling back into detrimental relational patterns of chaos, drama, and stress. In all likelihood, we have several family members that have become expert button-pushers over the years – who seem to know exactly how to hurt us, and who may even seem to derive great pleasure in doing so. It is very easy to point the finger at family members like these, blaming them for consistently ruined holidays and an unnecessary exacerbation of well-worn problems and tired disputes.

Dealing with Dysfunctional Family Members

Rather than throw ourselves back into the midst of the madness, we can work towards modifying our own behaviors and reactions. If we adjust our own actions while accepting the fact that our family members may never change, we have the power to improve any relationship. Understanding that the power to amend interactions lies within us and our personal perspectives and behaviors will help to alleviate much of the potential dread that may go hand-in-hand with returning home for the holidays.

Here are a few tips that may come in handy when dealing with dysfunctional family members. Remember – the ability to transform stress-inducing relationships lies within you!

  1. Quickly forsake negative conversations.

If a light-hearted conversation with grandma quickly shifts from sports and the weather to ‘why aren’t you married yet and what are you going to do with your degree’, either bring it back to baseball or abandon it altogether. Rather than taking the bait and reacting to comments or questions that rub you the wrong way, simply excuse yourself from the conversation. The less frequently you react, the less frequently you will hear the same button-pushing inquiries and criticisms.

  1. Resist the impulse to people please.

When we grow up in dysfunctional households, we frequently adopt a ‘people pleasing’ mentality – assuming the role of mediator and doing our best to prevent conflict and confrontation. We learn to say ‘yes’ even if doing so goes against our better judgment, afraid that refusal to comply will result in even more unwarranted chaos. This holiday season, practice saying ‘no’. If you don’t feel comfortable doing something, don’t do it. If you do not respond to the manipulative and shaming tactics that your family members typically employ, they will eventually learn not to use them on you.

  1. Take a look at the positive.

Okay, so Uncle Bob has a pretty obvious drinking problem, and he has some unresolved anger issues that he might want to eventually deal with (not your place to say, of course). Rather than focus on the negative, try to focus on how brilliant Uncle Bob’s sense of humor is. Rather than focus on how belittling and harsh your step-mother can be, focus on how tidy she keeps the house, and how impeccable her cooking skills are. By law, we see more of what we focus on – if we focus on negative traits, we will continuously recognize them. If we focus on the positive, our perspective is liable to change. We will begin noticing more redeemable qualities; judging less and relating more.

  1. Center yourself before interacting.

Before walking through the front door of your parents’ house, take several minutes to breathe, pray, and center yourself. Remember to re-center yourself whenever necessary – step into the bathroom, lock the door, and meditate for five minutes while breathing slowly and deeply. Grounding yourself before any potentially dysfunctional interactions is the best way to move through inevitable exchanges unscathed.

  1. Avoid serious topics of conversation.

The best way to avoid conflict is to keep topics of conversation superficial and optimistic. If you have an exceptionally self-pitying cousin who loves to discuss the many ways in which her life is an unjust amalgamation of suffering and social restriction, simply compliment her sweater and move on with your life. If your miserable mother-in-law hates her husband and career but derives great joy from talking about her newest crafting endeavor, ask her, “Have you been crafting?” rather than, “How is your husband and career?” Keep conversation light and let sleeping dogs lie – no use drudging up old or uncomfortable matters.

  1. Maintain constant spiritual connection.

Returning home after a long period of dedicated self-improvement can be emotionally overwhelming, and may work to shake your foundation – no matter how solid. Practice maintaining spiritual connectedness amidst potential chaos. If you begin to feel exhausted or agitated, step outside to clear your head. Ask for continuous guidance and increased tolerance, and hit your knees (in a private place) whenever you begin to feel exceptionally off-balance. Remember that you will never be met with a situation you are incapable of handling.

  1. Plan an escape route.

If your family is truly and thoroughly dysfunctional, and the pandemonium gets to be a little too much to handle, there is no shame in excusing yourself from the festivities for long enough to clear your head, call a sober support, or hit a local meeting. Before you head home for the holidays, let a few friends know that you may be calling them, or find a few nearby meetings that you can easily get to if need be. Formulating a plan of action will not only give you some peace of mind, but it will allow you to take a brief break from the familial mayhem if need be.

Keep Yourself Sane This Holiday Season

By keeping the focus on ourselves, we can expertly avoid any unnecessary drama, and enjoy our time home with our crazy, incomparable families. Changing the way in which we deal with dysfunctional family members will not only make surviving the holiday season much easier, it will allow us to maintain important relationships while protecting our own serenity and mental stability. Focus on the positive, keep topics of conversation light and impersonal, and avoid people pleasing in order to dodge conflict. Altering the ways in which you interact with button-pushing family members will inevitably help to keep you grounded and sane – and who knows… it may even inspire them to interact differently with you! Probably not, but maybe.