6 Tips to Help You Navigate Dysfunctional Family Holidays

By Bethany Ivie

Last Updated: December 11, 2018

6 Tips to Help You Navigate Dysfunctional Family Holidays

It's here. The holiday season is here. Whether you are ready or not it's time to grab some boughs, deck the halls, and do some fa-la-la-ing. For many, December is a joyous time. For many more, it's a time of stress, seasonal depression and, most importantly, dysfunctional family gatherings. Before you go setting any Home Alone traps for your unsuspecting in-laws, we've got you covered. Take a look at these tips for making it through Christmas with the problematic people you love with as little emotional damage as possible. 

Don't be Clark Griswold. Set realistic expectations and be ok if things aren't how you imagined they'd be.

Set Realistic Expectations, Then Lower Them

Take a minute to think, to really think about your typical family holiday. What does it normally look like? Is it really the peaceful, magic-filled affair you're remembering? Or is it always tense and stressful? 

Think about what triggers that you've faced in the past with your family and take a minute to acknowledge them instead of pretending they don't exist. Is your brother a raging narcissist? Does your cousin routinely make comments about your weight? Do you have an uncle who won't stop yelling about politics? Go in expecting it. 

While this won't change the fact that you're in for some stress when you visit your Aunt Lisa's, it will keep you from entering a stressful situation emotionally unprepared. Instead of expecting an unrealistic Hallmark affair, expect reality and be prepared for it. 

If all else fails, you may have to pull a Buddy the Elf and initiate a tickle fight. (But do so at your own risk)

Be Ready To Diffuse Family Tensions

So, you're going in and you know it's going to be rough. Arm yourself with some healthy, argument-diffusing techniques. Nothing puts a damper on the season of cheer like a screaming family argument. If you're headed into a gathering where you know your cousin is going to pick a fight with you, be ready for them. 

Here are a few key phrases that could help shorten the lifespan of an argument or difficult conversation:

You can also diffuse an argument by using "I" statements. Instead of shifting blame toward the person you're talking to ("You always bring up politics!"), which can make him/her feel defensive, try asserting your feelings with an "I" statement ("I don't want to talk about politics right now, Uncle Gary. Let's discuss something else.") 

Like Randy in

If All Else Fails ... Say Nothing

We all have one relative who simply won't be diverted. They know just what to say to bait you into an argument. Don't fall for it! If your attempts to diffuse the situation don't work simply ... don't react. Take the high road in the name of family peace and leave proving cousin Pam wrong for another day. 

Take a page out of Scrooge's book and say

Take a Lesson From Scrooge: Learn to Say "No"

If you find yourself freaking out about family-induced holiday pressures remember: you can say "no." 

 Here's a brief list of things you do not have to do this holiday season for or with your family: 

  • Make a perfect holiday meal 
  • Get everyone the perfect present (or a present at all)
  • Decorate your home like you're an actual holiday wizard
  • Stay all day at a family get together
  • Make that family recipe that no one likes, but everyone expects
  • Impress your grandparents with your life choices
  • Make sure everyone that your kids, cousins, mom et all have a holly, jolly Christmas
  • Go to every family gathering you're invited to

The list goes on! If you feel stressed out at the thought of doing something, you don't have to do it. It is not your responsibility to provide your family with a pristine, perfect Christmas. Or, if it is? It's ok if it's not fit for a Martha Stewart special. Know your limits and channel Scrooge when you have to. Everyone will be ok.

You aren't bailing on family Christmas. You're John McClane, leaping from Nakatomi Plaza in the nick of time.

Have an Exit Strategy

This tip comes straight from World Ark editor Austin Bailey: If the going gets tough, the tough get going. Sometimes your best attempts at keeping cool at the holiday table will still not be enough. Brief escapes can help you calm down, and knowing you’ve got a rock-solid escape plan in your back pocket goes a long way, too. So don’t even walk in your in-laws’ front door without good walking shoes and a getaway vehicle in the driveway.

Walks around the block are a simple short-term solution when things get overheated. Alone time, fresh air and a boosted heart rate work wonders. If you’re feeling especially anxious, consider a walk long enough to tire you out so you no longer have the energy to fight with family members. This is a great opportunity to get in those 10,000 steps on your new fitbit!

 And always drive your own car to avoid any feelings of being trapped. If you have to decide between a knock-down-drag-out family brawl or a graceful escape, grab those keys and go.