The holiday season can bring out the best and worst in us and in our family members as potentially a lot of time is spent together and there often are expectations for the celebrations. We may have a wish to have a wonderful festive season like in the Hollywood films with sitting by the log fire drinking hot mulled wine whilst some snowflakes are slowly covering the ground with fresh and clean snow. You may enter the season with an image and a wish of having parties filled with laughter, sparkle and good will.

Unfortunately, for many of us, the festive season can end up being very stressful and unpleasant experience often for spending time with family members whose behaviour is causing stress and upset. This could be, for example, anything from spending time with a very critical family member continuously complaining about something and being very negative, at a family gathering someone getting very drunk and being inappropriate, attention-seeking family member continuously talking about themselves and their problems, to family gatherings ending up in arguments or worse.

You may feel that you want or have to attend a family gathering for whatever your personal reason is:

  • perhaps you feel obliged and it is the tradition
  • there are other people who you enjoy spending time with
  • perhaps you feel that repercussions of not attending would be too difficult to deal with
  • or perhaps something else….

If you are dreading the family gatherings and wonder how to make the festive season with your family member more bearable, there are various things you can do to help yourself. A festive family gathering does not have to ruin your holiday spirit and enjoyment.

I wanted to put together a few pointers here to consider on how the reduce the impact of seeing dysfunctional family members and how to survive the festive season so that you can still enjoy the season without it being overtaken by a worry on what will happen at your family gathering.

How can I survive the festive season with a dysfunctional family?

  • Set realistic expectations – If you are planning on spending any time with family members that have in the past caused upset for you or for others in your family, the chances are that their behaviour may escalate during a family get together. Be realistic about how the party or a visit may go.
  • Set boundaries – you don’t need to agree to anything your mother, father or other family members ask of you. If you suspect that certain family members are going to cause a lot of stress for you. Set boundaries even before going, e.g. inform that you can only stay for X number of hours. Think about what are you comfortable or ok with and what not. If you feel that the meeting could be less stressful in a more neutral environment, suggest e.g. that you meet in a public place rather than in someone’s home. Think about ways to make it more comfortable and less stressful for you, even if this means changing some traditions.
  • Before going to a family gathering check your own mood – Stressed, anxious, angry – what is going on for you? Perhaps you are reminded of the previous stressful family gatherings or if you are spending the time with your in-laws you may be reminded of your childhood holidays that were less than idyllic even fuelled with stress, fear and bad behaviour by your parents or other relatives. It is important to be aware of your own state before going to the event / visit so you can help to regulate yourself before and during the family gathering. If you are going to the party or visit feeling highly stressed, your energy may contribute to the atmosphere and other people may react to it. Remember to keep doing deep breathing whatever is going on around you. To stay grounded during the party or a visit you can practice a Safe place visualisation which is in the Resource Library prior to the family gathering and then keep reminding yourself of your safe / happy place during the family gathering.
  • Less is more – You don’t need to spend all your holidays with your dysfunctional family or even a full day if you feel that it is causing a lot of anxiety for you. It may be that you only want to visit family members for a couple of hours and then for the rest of the time you have your own plans and spend your time with people who you can relax with.
  • Become an observing participant rather than an actively involved member of the chaos – How do you usually behave when in a dysfunctional family gathering? Do you actively try to get your family members to behave? Regardless of how embarrassed/anxious / angry you are about your family member’s behaviour trying to get them to understand how their behaviour is affecting when they are in a heightened state of emotion / drunk, they won’t be able to hear you and this may escalate their behaviour. Try to think whether whatever is being said or done is really about you or about their stuff. Try to remain neutral and observe the interactions without getting too involved. It may feel difficult but if you become involved it is likely that you feel worse afterwards. If it becomes too overbearing and stressful, you can leave. You don’t have to stay in that environment.
  • Meditate, do deep breathing or use visualisations – The festive season is often very busy and you may get very stressed with getting organised with presents and other parties. If you then on top of those worry about your dysfunctional family, you may feel highly anxious or even low. Keep taking small but frequent breaks in your busy schedule to help you to stay grounded as these help you to regulate your nervous system.
  • Do things that bring pleasure for you – It is very easy to get caught up in the preparations for the festive season and forget that you need TLC yourself. Make time to do things that you enjoy as this also helps you to cope with the stress that your dysfunctional family members may cause.

I hope that these tips are useful for you during this festive season! Take care of yourself and I wish you a great festive season however you decide to spend it. If the stress caused by dysfunctional family members feels too overwhelming, it may be a good idea to seek support from therapy. Those difficult family relationships are likely to impact you all year around and perhaps you need some space to think about how to manage these relationships in your life.