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Surviving the Holidays: Tips for Coping with Dysfunctional Family

Updated: Jan 8

"It's the most wonderful time of the year!" - Someone who doesn't have a dysfunctional family.

The holidays can be challenging for everyone. The social engagements, the planning, not to mention the decorating. When we add family trauma or dysfunction it gets even more complicated and we can quickly find ourselves dreading the season all together.

A faux christmas tree is surrounded by beige presents and white candles.

Thankfully, you're not alone! So many clients come into my office with so much guilt (which is usually actually shame. More on that another time.) about dreading the holidays. They feel their anxiety building as the days get closer and judge themselves for not wanting to spend time with their family.

If this sounds like you, I've compiled some tips I hope will help his holiday season.

1. Cope in advance.

One of the advantages we have to the holidays is they're the same time every year. Given that predictability it gives us an opportunity to plan accordingly. Seeing a qualified therapist or participating in a group like adult children of alcoholics & dysfunctional families can be a great way to process the anxiety, anger and grief that can come up and identify tools for how to deal with it in the moment.

2. Set boundaries before you get in the door.

We've all been there, you go over a family member's house with every intention to leave by a certain time. A few guilt trips later, you're exhausted and leaving 2 hours later than you wanted to. Sound familiar? It doesn't have to! Thinking about our boundaries before we see our family helps us to know what we may need. Think back on past holidays. Do you tend to get guilted into staying late? Set a boundary. Does your family ask uncomfortable questions? Set a boundary. The key here is to do it in ADVANCE, this allows you to communicate expectations ahead of time and allows you to go into the situation with less anxiety. Need some help? Check out this communication technique.

3. Reclaim the holidays.

When we come from a dysfunctional family we can have mixed feelings about the holidays, and for good reason! As a result, we can write them off all together or simply do "what is expected" from our family. What do the holidays mean to you? Celebration, reflection, faith? Get in touch with what that looks like and do it! Begin your own positive traditions and reclaim the time as your own. Need some help? Visit this link for some tips.

4. Be compassionate with yourself.

Last, but certainly not least, be compassionate with yourself. We often carry so much and judgement and shame around our feelings. The fact is our nervous system is wired to keep us safe! It highlights negative experiences so we can avoid them in the future. Think of it this way: have you ever eaten something and gotten sick? You probably feel nauseous thinking of it now, and may still avoid that food. This is the same sort of thing. Talk to yourself like you would a friend and give yourself slack.

Let me know your thoughts. What would you add to this list?

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