Dysfunctional Families and the Holidays

How to survive—and even thrive.

Posted Nov 22, 2019

ID 163752076  Tommaso79 / Dreamstime
Source: ID 163752076 Tommaso79 / Dreamstime

Holidays are happy times, aren’t they? Families gather together around the dinner table and share love and devotion over food; gifts are given, always the ones that are most wanted by the receiver and thoughtful on the part of the giver; the house is warm and comfortable, and the days are energizing and fulfilling.

Unfortunately, for many, many people this happy scene is not the reality of their families. Instead, holidays can be dreaded—addiction problems, missing loved ones who have died, being alone after divorce or fights with children, money troubles, yelling and fighting, indifference and lack of care and concern, and exhaustion for some people trying to do too much with too little reward are more the norm. Many people look at holidays at just something to “get through”—a time of the year to endure until the next morning comes and life can return to some sort of normalcy.

Holidays can last all throughout November and December, and the pain exists until the calendar turns to the new year and the person can hope for a different set of outcomes next year. If you are dreading your holiday season, there is still time to consider taking a different approach this year such that you might not only get through the holidays in a better frame of mind, but possibly even enjoy them just a little bit.

1. Knowing the cycle will likely be the same as it has been in the past for you, choose a different path this year.

Aunt Mary always get on your nerves when you meet your family at her house? Sister Sally consistently put you down for your choices and lifestyle? Dad never gives you thoughtful and personal gifts and seems to forget each and every year to buy you anything? Don’t expect more from them! Aunt Mary will do her thing, Sister Sally and Dad will come through as they always have, and you can choose, this year, to let it roll off of you. Have someone you can text, or call or communicate with, who is in on the secret and knows what you will confront. When family members do what you know they will do, reach out to your friend: “Yes, it happened again.” Ask them to be ready with a reply that is helpful to you—a smiling emoji, a funny meme or a joke that makes you laugh. Instead of having a negative response, be ready with a different response.

2. If holidays are lonely because you have lost someone or miss those you love, make plans to be somewhere else during the holiday.

Nursing homes, pediatric units in the hospital, animal shelters and the like are full of people and furry beings who are longing for love and attention. The best way to lift your sorrow and pain is to turn your attention to someone who really needs your focus and support. Not only does it feel good to be helpful, but you will take your mind off your own sadness for a short time.

3. Make a new plan this year.

It’s hard to believe, but if you really, truly dread showing up at your family’s house for the holidays you can go somewhere else and do something different. Yes, they will complain; yes, they will try and make you feel guilty; yes, they will get mad—but so what? They will either get over it, or they will be so upset you will be off the hook entirely next year! Find a friend, or co-worker, or neighbor or church or synagogue where you could gather instead of being with family. There are many people and places who spend holidays either alone, or with people, they are not related to—start your own new tradition this year.

4. If you have the funds and can afford it, shop for someone in need this year.

There are many organizations that try and support those less fortunate during the holidays. Gifts for Kids, Toys for Tots, Home for Little Wanderers and animal shelters are just a handful. Your local town or city will likely have their own organizations you can help. If you can’t afford to shop, consider volunteering. Can you help run a holiday party, or cook a turkey for the homeless shelter, or deliver gifts or wrap them? Being a part of helping those in need during the holidays can be very uplifting and again puts your focus on someone other than you.

5. Choose a completely different holiday experience.

Depending on where you live and the weather, you could bike or hike or play golf. You could take in a movie and gorge on popcorn. You could take a day trip somewhere, or if you have the funds a short cruise or trip away. Do something that has nothing to do with holidays but is fun for you! Set a goal of something you want to accomplish, binge watch your favorite shows, knit that scarf you keep talking about, get a few books from the library and have a reading marathon. Make a plan to occupy yourself and entertain yourself and allow yourself to enjoy doing so.

6. If you absolutely, positively must attend the holiday events with those who irk you, be prepared to deal with the recurring upset a bit differently this year.

Practice being mindful while the fights are raging around you, step outside  onto the porch to breathe deeply and enjoy the outside air, have a mantra that calms you and orients your mind away from that which upsets you and toward something positive, sing a song you like in your head every time you feel yourself getting upset. In short, have a plan for what you can do to mitigate the upsetting reactions.

The holidays will be over before you know it; before they start, have your strategy in place to know what you will do differently this year to allow yourself the freedom to have a better experience.