• Nicole Ambrose, LCSW

How To Cope With Dysfunctional Family Gatherings


Here it is… your family gathering survival guide! You’ve gained some ground around your childhood trauma. You’ve learned about the importance of boundaries and have become more aware of ALL the ways your boundaries are crossed or compromised in your family relationships. Maybe you’ve been able to create some physical and/or emotional distance in these relationships to allow yourself space to heal. BUT… here comes a family event and you’re about to enter the gauntlet that you’ve worked so hard to break free from.


It’s normal to be nervous about that. It’s normal to have some anticipation anxiety around family gatherings, especially if they have been challenging in the past.


You might be thinking, if being around my family is this unnerving, then why don’t I just cut them off and stay away? Well sure, that’s an option; but there’s also a lot of valid reasons why some people choose not to completely cut off dysfunctional family members despite how they’ve been treated.


Maintaining a connection to a family unit can be a strong value for some. If that’s you, then keep reading. There’s a high risk for re-traumatization for those still in the process of healing on their own or at the family level. With a solid plan to tend to your needs and emotions before, during, and after family gatherings, you’ll reduce the potential of regressing on your healing journey by being intentional in how you protect and care for yourself.


Before The Gathering


We’ll call this your preparation stage. Spend some time checking in with yourself a few days before you’re going anywhere or inviting family over. What do you think you’ll need during the visit? It’s quite possible that part of you is reluctant about the whole thing because of fear or dread based on previous experiences. Reflect on those. Use them to identify what you’ll need this time around.


For most, what’s definitely needed is a place to retreat if things become overwhelming or too much to handle. You’ll want to consider this in two parts: an internal retreat and an external retreat. It might seem a little weird, but creating a safe and secure place within you can help when you don’t really want to leave the gathering, but still need some respite from it.


Create your space by visualizing a place in your mind that is calm and comforting. It can be a real place that you’ve been to or something completely made up. Disengage from others for a few minutes to go to your internal retreat. Notice what you see, hear, smell, and feel while you’re there. Allow yourself to get grounded and when you’re ready, come back to the gathering. Be mindful that this is not a magic pill and you still may feel triggered, but it will reduce the intensity a bit for you.


Now if that isn’t enough to restore a sense of safety and groundedness, then utilize your external retreat. Remind yourself that you can always leave the situation to protect and care for yourself if needed. Your external retreat could mean that you step away from the group for a bit or take a break outside. It could also mean that you leave the gathering altogether. Make sure to have a means of transportation planned for yourself so that you don’t have to rely on someone else if you need to exit quickly. Also, have a friend on standby or an alternative place to go to avoid feeling trapped.


During The Gathering


The most important thing during this phase is to remember your boundaries and practice them. This is a necessity for every person healing from familial trauma, but especially for those that are healing on their own without the involvement of their families. If this is you, it is very likely that family members may push your limits or trigger you because they have not done any work to become aware of or to change their dysfunctional ways.


Key points to remember:

  • It’s ok to say “NO” to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable and you don’t have to have an elaborate reason why. No is a complete sentence.

  • If you’re being asked questions that you don’t feel comfortable answering, it’s ok to say “I don’t want to talk about that” and change the subject.

  • Be kind. There may be times when you want to blow the roof off and expose the dysfunction to the world, but remember that your goal is to get through this experience safely. Don’t let the poison of others seep in and cause you to act in a way that doesn’t align with your healing and growth. There’s a time and place for confrontation, so use your judgment to determine what’s going to give you the best outcome.

  • Be direct and firm. Stay away from maybes, mights, possibly, etc because it leaves too much room for someone to keep badgering you about whatever it is later on. If it’s hard for you to say “no” directly, try starting your response with “unfortunately, I can’t/won’t/don’t/didn’t…” instead. It conveys a sense of regret for not meeting an expectation but also leads you into establishing your boundary.

  • Provide gentle reminders as needed to people you’ve already established boundaries with. It’s ok to say “Remember we talked about this before, I don’t like…”

  • If you’ve done all of the above and someone is STILL pushing your limits, clearly identify the consequences if they don’t heed your warning. The consequences could be that you will have to stop the conversation or stop communicating completely with that person, or it could mean that you have to remove yourself from the situation.

After The Gathering

You survived! Once you’re back in your comfort zone, spend some time reflecting on your experience. This is a great time to pull out the journal and unload all of your thoughts and feelings. How did it go overall? Did you feel hurt? Do you feel like you may have hurt others and feel some guilt around that? How did people respond when you set and maintained healthy boundaries? After you’ve had some time to process, implement your practices of self-care.


Conclusion

It’s not an easy thing to be around people and places that have been harmful and unhealthy for you. In fact, sometimes the easier thing to do is to re-engage in the dysfunction because it feels normal and takes less effort. But you don’t have to stunt your own growth every time you want to see your family. Just know that changing the dynamics within yourself and within your family system takes time and consistency. Don’t expect perfection because you will get disappointed. Take one minute at a time.


You don’t have to go through this alone either. A therapist can be a great tool to help you work through these steps in a neutral, supportive, and healthy environment. Not only will you learn strategies for coping and caring for yourself, but you’ll gain insight into your history and your current relationships to define what changes you want to make to construct a healthy life. Reach out today to get the support you need to heal from and overcome childhood and family trauma.