Coping with Family Dysfunction at the Holidays

By Marilee Feldman, LCPC, CADC

On the wall of my office where I do counseling I have a sketch that says, “Rules for a Successful Holiday: 1. Get together with the family, 2. Relive old times…tick tick tick…3. Get out before it blows.”

Yes, let the fun of the holidays begin! The holidays are uniquely suited to cause us pain: They come with surreal, Hallmark-generated expectations yet always manage to catch us by surprise in their ability to put a harsh spotlight on all that is wrong in our family. Family functions in general are unique because no one in our lives—not our spouse, our children, or our boss—can trigger strong emotions in us in quite the same way as our families of origin: our parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters. It’s like the child we once were decides to resurface at age 45 and take control.

At these times we’re all pretty much at risk of becoming the 12 year old we used to be, highly emotionally activated and upset, with fewer coping strategies. For example, because I was the youngest child in my family, I have an old wound around not being taken seriously that can really get reactivated and make me feel hurt and angry, despite all my time in therapy. It’s like the rational, thinking part of my brain gets hijacked, leaving me with more a more primitive, younger version of myself who is unable to think clearly or calmly. And there’s a lot of science now that tells us that when childhood wounds are reactivated, the more primitive parts of our brain override the more rationale, adult-like parts. And if you’re lucky enough not to have that happen to you, rest assured that it will happen to someone else in the room, like your drunk uncle, passive aggressive sister, or arrogant brother in law.

So how can we cope with the fun? The most obvious strategy is to watch our expectations. Don’t walk into a family event fantasizing that somehow this year will be different. It’s a really good idea, in fact, to spend time in advance, thinking about how people will likely behave and how to best respond. A little acceptance can go a long way. In addition, having clear boundaries is essential. Figure out who you want to see at the holidays, how much time you want to spend with them, how to get space and take breaks, and how you can graciously depart on your own time frame. And most of all, try, try, try to have a sense of humor.

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