• Alexa von Oertzen, LMFT

7 Tips to Navigate the Holidays with Your Dysfunctional Family

The holidays tend to be an excellent time for slowing down the pace, regaining balance, and connecting with family and loved ones. It is a time when we are supposed to feel thankful for those who support us and give back to the people who make life meaningful. Unfortunately, the holidays can be the complete opposite of those with toxic family members.



Dealing with overbearing parents, competitive siblings, a controlling spouse, or toxic family members can trigger the worst in us and put us into a fight, flight, or freeze mode. These situations that resemble past negative experiences can make us dread the holidays and the closeness that is forced on us.


What should you look out for?


One of the top complaints I get in the office is when parents (or in-laws) of my clients are judgmental, critical, and controlling. Do you have parents who want to dictate how they spend their time with you and act like the dynamic with you has never changed? Do they tend to disrespect boundaries and make off-handed comments about your past failures or your own parenting skills? Sometimes they even use their grandkids as pons in their manipulation ploys. They expect to still be the decision-makers in the kitchen, in the gift exchanges, and in what each family member is supposed to do. This can be an invalidating and depressing experience that tears you to the core and makes you feel stuck in self-doubt and deprecation.


Another problematic scenario entails sharing the kids with your ex-partner's family over the holidays. This is especially difficult when you are newly separated or divorced, or when your ex-partner is highly angered, bitter, or spiteful about the breakup. They either want the kids exclusively to themselves to hurt you, or they want to outshine you by offering the most gifts or providing the most fun for your kids. The greatest downfall is that your kids could get hurt by hearing negative comments about their parents. It could put them in a position to choose a side and give up loyalty to one or both parents.


Sharing the holidays with a family member struggling with an addiction can also be stressful. Your family member may be in denial and not accept any boundaries during the celebrations. They might be aggressive, rude, or physically abusive to you. They might manipulate the family for money, or they might be depressed and threaten to self-harm. This situation creates unpredictability and you’ve probably noticed that you are always on alert. The consequences are phony and unpleasurable moments, coupled with the tension of bending life to suit your family member’s moods.


Now for those who have a narcissist in the family or someone who meets this description, the holidays can be threatening, constrictive, and frightening. In this family, not only are you fielding criticism, threats, insults, and even blackmail, but you are also dealing with the harassment of other family members who prefer to ally with the narcissist, not to be victims themselves. This is a highly toxic situation as it usually triggers PTSD from past abusive interactions, making you regress to the person you were years ago. The emotional stronghold is so intense that it paralyzes you from standing up or fighting off those harmful attacks.


Nobody should have to be caught in these situations during the holidays!


What can you do to prepare?


1. Plan how much (or little) you will interact


Weigh the pros and cons of mixing with your family depending on the situation. Perhaps you can remain for the main event and skip the pre and post. Maybe you can stay active during the event and avoid getting into sensitive conversations with certain members of your family. Helping in the kitchen, playing with the kids, or even staying on positive topics could curb conflict. If you are coming with kids, make sure they too have things to do and are surrounded by the best people. They could walk the dog, or stay in a room and play, or watch a movie.


2. Identify and use your allies


When you know you will be harassed or criticized by a particular family member, it is always good to plan ahead and make sure you have allies to help defend you during the family gathering. There are strengths in numbers, so sitting next to your favorite relatives or having friends nearby or a call away can help you gain the courage to face the unpleasant times.


3. Set realistic expectations


It helps to prepare yourself and your feelings for a worst-case scenario and know how you want to react. Taking away the element of surprise gives you room to be creative with your responses and overall approach. For example, if you realize that certain people cannot help who they are and the behaviors they exhibit, you can start looking at them as the weaker person while you begin to feel like the stronger one.


4. Implement your coping skills


When you need to sit at the table with those problematic relatives, you can still use some coping skills, like setting boundaries in conversations and how much you are willing to take before you stand up for who you are. But, again, it is crucial to stay in control of your emotions. Take breaks to calm down and breathe out anxiety, use the sandwich method to say "no," or deflect arguments by changing subjects and using humor. Try to stay in the moment so your mind does not wander to the past and resurfaces hurtful memories that instill doubt and fear.


5. Let go of the past


As hard as it is, the process of letting go of your feelings from the past is the most helpful and healthy thing you can do. You choose not to be defined by that person’s judgment or criticism and start looking at yourself from your own perspective. You look at all your positives and how the people that mean so much to you view your worth. Positive self-talk about who you are, independent of what you are told, is vital for you to no longer be dependent on that toxic family member for validation.


6. Increase self-care before and after


Often, the holidays end up being those few days you can finally rest from a busy year. Make sure you give yourself the time to actually stop and reflect on what you accomplished and on all the good things that came your way. One way to ensure that your holidays stay positive is to care for yourself, either by doing something you love or giving yourself the gift of friends, material things, or entertainment. Self-care is critical when you know you will need to deal with a stressful time. Having something to look forward to after the "difficult visit" can give you that extra energy and a good attitude to make it through.


7. Create a new experience


Sometimes a past holiday experience can be so damaging that replicating it is out of the question. In these instances, the best option is to create a brand-new experience and make it a new holiday all your own. You can choose the people you care about (family or not) and start a new tradition that rebrands the occasion for everyone involved. You can select a different day, a different location, or a different name. You can be creative and build a celebration that helps you start fresh and move towards a brighter future.

If you feel that you need assistance in maneuvering this time and want a better way of looking at your situation, a family therapist can help. A new perspective, coupled with coping skills and more assertive communication, can offer you the extra support needed to regain control of your emotions and help you revive your outlook.


Call me today at 954.391.5305 for a complimentary consultation. I provide family counseling for teens and adults (in English and Portuguese) at our beautiful Coral Springs office. I also provide online counseling across the state of Florida. For more information about my approach to therapy, click here. I look forward to speaking with you!


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