Six-minute read

The holidays are here! Many—if not most—folks around you are eagerly anticipating family get-togethers and reconnecting with far-flung relations. You, however, are feeling something a bit different—a growing sense of dread. 

Family is what it's all about at the holidays. According to a Pew Research Center report, 89% of those surveyed planned to have either a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal with extended family this year. The typical host planned to set places for a dozen relatives; 62% said 10 or more would be present for the holiday meal.

Depending on your family, the traditional holiday dinner can be an opportunity for bonding, or a launching pad for a simmering family conflict. Sometimes both.

Yikes! Is it the Holidays Already?

You come from one of those family where the dynamic is uneven at best. It’s not quite bad enough to abandon the idea of family holidays altogether. But you approach each one with a certain wariness born of experience.

Just last Thanksgiving, you recall, your sister and her family showed up  late—like four hours late—without an apology. The side dish they were responsible for came to the table still in the Trader Joe’s bags into which the ingredients were placed half an hour before. When you opted NOT to delay Thanksgiving dinner another 45 minutes to make the side dish from scratch (after all, the turkey was ready two hours ago), a fight with your sister ensued which resulted in stony stares around the dinner table and pointedly ignored requests to “please pass the salt.” 

This year, that same sister is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce (which may explain, in part, the scene last Thanksgiving). But for the "sake of the kids" (said kids being in their late teens) she and her soon-to-be-ex are going to spend one "last" family at your house (they didn't get along during the best of times; just the thought of them together this year turns your stomach into nervous knots). 

Something else is added into the mix—your mom, still a minx at 72, wants to bring her new boyfriend to the festivities. There is a slight problem though. She is still “technically” living with her old boyfriend, who has given no indication that he wants to move out. He may not even know she has moved on. But you know he is expecting an invite.

You’re Part of This Too

Plus there’s you. You’re your own problem. You’ve been brain washed by nearly 50 years of holiday TV commercials that depict every celebration-themed dinner as the ultimate in family fulfillment. Awe! Stevie is sneaking a Christmas cookie, grinning mischievously while Grandpa looks on with a smile! College-aged Joe surprises his younger siblings by showing up in a snowstorm on Christmas eve! Middle-aged sisters really can put on a fabulous holiday spread, smiling the whole time as their ridiculously handsome husbands gaze on with approval and the cherubic children around the table grin in anticipation.

Your family get-together is definitely NOT commercial-worthy. 

As a result, you drink one glass of wine too many, make nervously awkward references to how glad you are that everyone made the time to get together, you enlist your 10-year-old niece’s help with making your famed bacon-wrapped jalapenos for an appetizer and she forgetfully rubs her eye. You grow resentful when everyone leaves you alone in the kitchen to do all the work while they sit in the family room watching football. Your husband comes in with some innocuous question and you respond with a baleful, “Get out of here! If you’re not going to help me then I don’t want to see you!” He glowers while retreating. 

Then your Trump-loving brother and  your “Bernie-Bro” nephew delve into a topic that all intelligent people pretend doesn’t exist during the holiday season: politics. You can hear the shouts all the way from the family room.

Six Survival Techniques

No wonder you’re not excited about the upcoming holiday season! Maybe, you think, you should just scrap all of it and take a last-minute trip to Costa Rica or Belize or somewhere very, very, very far from here. Except you’ve spent all your mad-money getting ready for the “celebration” with your family. 

If you really are determined to get together with your family (because, you tell yourself with desperation, this year it’s gonna be fun!) then it might serve you well to read through the following Six Helpful Hints for Handling the Holidays with Family:

  • Set boundaries: One way to prep yourself for the not-necessarily-but-likely familial fall-out is to figure out your boundaries ahead of time. That will help you feel at least marginally more in control. Challenged by the idea of actually saying those boundaries out loud? Stay calm and be very clear. Be sure to let the family members most likely to push past those boundaries know ahead of time.
  • Try to avoid hosting. If you are usually the one who hosts, this may be the year that someone else draws that particular short straw. This gives you the freedom to leave if absolutely necessary. However, if you do end up hosting, you do have a few tricks up your sleeve to make the day a little less stressful for you (and everyone else). For example, you can deftly maneuver the "seating assignments" so people with "conflicting personalities" aren't next to each other. You could also invite a few "buffers." Most people--hopefully your family too--behave a bit better when outsiders are included. Just make sure that your buffer knows that fireworks may ensue ...
  • Accept that it may suck. The truth is, humans in general are pretty hopeful. It’s one of the traits that have propelled us forward even when the terrain seemed to rough to traverse or the ocean too wide to cross. However, when it comes to family, that hope can be dashed, especially when you’ve set your sights just too high. It’s okay if the situation doesn’t live up to your hopes. In fact, be prepared for that. In that way, anything that is even marginally good about the event will seem that much better when compared to your pre-set low expectations.
  • Avoid too much alcohol. In every situation where it’s important to stay in control—from tension-filled family get-togethers to the office holiday party—it’s always better to limit your booze intake. When you drink, your inhibitions are down. And if you’re harboring any resentments, alcohol might loosen your tongue a bit and you might end up saying something you just may regret. Not to mention, who needs the mental “walk of shame” when you wake up the next morning and ask yourself in dismay, “Oh no! What did I do/say last night?!” Or, here’s a thought, why not just do away with alcohol altogether? Nowhere is it written that there has to be alcohol whenever a family gets together. Serve sparkling cider or “mocktails” instead. “But I need it!” you cry. While that is an understandable sentiment, the truth is that you’ll be perfectly fine if you skip the wine. Feeling stressed? Try sneaking off to an empty room for five minutes of deep-breathing exercises or head out for a brisk ten-minute walk around the block at a quick pace. 
  • Watch your face. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible not to react to something, especially when it’s outrageous in your eyes or brings up old pain. However, if you want to avoid exacerbating the conflict, do your best to be mindful of your non-verbal communication—your expression, the tone of your voice, your body language. Think about it: would YOU want to see your sister suddenly cross her arms, toss her head back, and roll her eyes if she objected to something you said—even if it was slightly insulting or passive-aggressive? 
  • Be compassionate. Last year, when your sister showed up hours late, you were angry, annoyed and even hurt. But one thing you probably weren’t was compassionate. This year, she’s going through a divorce. You might consider giving her a little—or a lot—of compassion. “You never know what someone is going through, so be kind.” So instead of getting upset over what your perceive as rude behavior, try compassion. You might be pleasantly surprised at their reaction.  

Now, all of this presupposes that your uneven family dynamic doesn’t rise to the level of outright abuse or true toxicity where genuine terror may ensue. In that case, you truly may want to skip the holiday traditions entirely—easier said than done, of course. Taking the step of separating from toxic family members is incredibly hard, guilt-inducing and takes tremendous courage. If that is the path you feel you need to take, it is best to work with a professional to help you find the right approach. 

As for the rest of us, here's a little bit of dysfunction pretty much in every family. But when family members have good boundaries or they handle conflict in an appropriate way, those little dysfunctions don't come to the forefront (we hope).

Happy holidays!