Dealing with Family Drama During the Holidays


You’re heading home for the holidays and cautiously looking forward to spending time with your family. Hoping that maybe this year will be different. Maybe things will go smoothly and you and your family will be able to keep things light and get along. Then while you’re home have a simple conversation with your mom, and before you know it she’s said something that makes you feel like a helpless 5 year old and you want to crawl under your chair. Family drama can involve anything from tense interactions and arguments to navigating a family member’s ongoing drinking problem and hurtful outbursts, to facing the daunting experience of going to spend time with family members who were abusive.

For some people the holidays are a wonderful, uncomplicated time spent with family. However, for many of us, spending extended time with family during the holidays can be complicated; there are some aspects that we enjoy and others that we dread. Much of the conflict and and drama we experience when we return home arises from unresolved issues that began long ago. Our visits home are made more difficult when we haven’t sorted through these complicated dynamics.

Whether you always end up in arguments with your siblings, you can’t see eye-to-eye with your mom, feel like a helpless child again in the presence of your dad, or you’re wrestling with a history of family abuse, in this post I offer some recommendations for how to better manage these difficult dynamics.

Know Your Triggers

Triggers are things that upset you. The things your family does that send you quickly to anger, crying, or shutting down. Your triggers could seem benign but cause a response that you have had in similar situations over decades. When you’re spending time with family it is helpful to know what your triggers are so that you can see them coming and respond constructively when you feel triggered. For example, you could be triggered by your mom telling you what to do with your life, or your aunt getting drunk and commenting on your physical appearance, or family members making judgments about people from a group that you identify with. When you feel triggered try to remove yourself from the situation. It won’t be effective to try to resolve and ongoing pattern of hurtful interactions when you are upset.

How to:  Reflect on the things that typically upset you. If possible, try to interrupt the triggers and remove yourself from the situation before things escalate. When you feel yourself getting upset take deep breaths and do something calming.

Take Breaks 

Just because you may be staying with your family for the holidays does not mean that you need to spend all of your time at with your family. Plan time away from your family so that you have some breathing space. If you have friends in the area, make time to see them. If not, go to a coffee shop, take a yoga class, or do something on your own away from your family. You might also consider limiting the time that you spend at home with your family. If you have a long break consider only spending part of that time at home.

Try Not to Take it Personally

Most of us take other people’s behavior very personally. When we feel hurt we are quick to assume that the other person intended to hurt us. This can be particularly true for our family. We are often more sensitive to interactions with our family than with other people in our lives so even small interactions can make us feel rejected and unloved. One thing that can help is trying not to take the behavior of your family personally. Realizing that your family members are humans with limitations and unable to meet all of your needs can help difficult interactions feel less painful.

How to: When someone does something that upsets you see if you can slow down, get curious about what happened and give them the benefit of the doubt. With this approach it will be easier to communicate how you feel and what you would like your family member to do differently in the future.

Try to Do Something Different

One of the things that continues family drama over the course of decades is that family members continue engaging each other in the same ways, causing cycles of conflict. While none of us have control of our entire family dynamic, we do have control of how we engage with our family members. Often one person in a family shifting their behavior prompts others to change their behaviors as well.

How to: Take some time to reflect on how you engage with your family. What do you do that contributes to the conflict? Are you happy with how you engage with your family? Use your answers to these questions to help you identify the ways that you would like to engage with your family. Consider how you would like to behave regardless of how your family acts.

Set realistic expectations

One of the things that contributes to holidays with family being disappointing is having unrealistic expectations. When we have fantasies about everyone in our family getting along perfectly, we are setting ourselves up to be disappointed. I encourage you to set realistic expectations for what family time will be like during the holidays. Setting reasonable expectations can also help you to fully enjoy the positive experiences that you have while you are home with your family without dreading that they will end or feeling like the time that you did have was not good enough.

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