Surviving the Holidays with Dysfunctional Family Members

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If you come from a dysfunctional family, the holidays are emotionally draining and you usually walk away feeling like you’ve been through World War III instead of a happy time. For some of us, it is best to avoid getting together with our families at all. For others, you can’t imagine not getting together with your family, because although dysfunctional, they are your family and it is the holidays. So, to keep your sanity, here are a few encouraging reminders to get you through.


Don’t take the bait. Dysfunctional families are made of master manipulators who throw bait out like they were at a national fishing derby. They throw it out via snide comments, criticisms, and even rude questions. Sometimes the bait comes at you offhandedly, sometimes it’s blatant. However it comes, don’t take it. You might have to bite your tongue until it bleeds, but refrain from answering. Remain silent. A fight can’t take place if there is no fuel to feed it.

The same goes for when the family is attacking a family member who is not there. As tempting as it might be to talk about the person currently being trashed, it’s wisest not too. Somehow, the things you said about that person will be told to them, while the things that everyone else said will be conveniently left out. Spare yourself the pain of blame later, and just don’t enter the conversation. Besides, the sad truth of the matter is, you’ll be the next victim they dissect as soon as you walk away. Be above that way of relating.

This next pointer has been especially hard in my own life: Don’t own everyone else’s misery and dysfunction. If you are the sensitive sort, like I am, you can take the blame, somehow, for everyone’s miserable behavior — and they’ll be more than happy to let you do that. It’s called scapegoating. The thing is, they are the ones to blame. Their choices and their negative outlook on life is why they are the way they are. It isn’t your fault. Let them be miserable and then determine that you are going to be different than them and actually lead a happy, healthy life.

Along the same lines, don’t let their moods determine yours. That’s another hard one for me, or I should say, it used to be. I could be in the best mood and then I could get together with my family (or other people for that matter) and their negativity quickly became my negativity. It’s like I almost felt guilty for being happy when they were so unhappy and as if I owed it to them to be miserable like them.

I got tired of that kind of up and down life eventually, however, and now, if those around me are seeped in negativism, I do all I can to not let it seep into my own soul. I have enough struggles in life; the last thing I need to do is take let other people’s emotions determine mine.

That being said, if you need to, own your own stuff. When we come from families that are less than healthy, sometimes it’s easy to point fingers at everyone else and blame them for the state of the family. Don’t forget you’re human too, though, and chances are, you’ve probably helped contribute to the state you’re all in.

You might have done this by your own bitterness and despair or by reacting in red hot anger as soon as a flare-up happens. On the other hand, some of us don’t contribute by being jerks. We contribute by being enablers. We sooth and coddle our unhappy family members, and in so doing, never force them to take responsibility for their own behavior. Examine your role in your family, and where it has been wrong, make adjustments and even apologies where necessary.

Don’t rescue people. If the family starts fighting, don’t jump in and try to make it all ok. And don’t try to defend everyone to everyone else and try to offer explanations for everyone either. Again, this is a hard role to get out of if you’re used to it. I hate conflict and will do all I can to stave it off if I see it coming. But it’s exhausting. Not to mention, while I’m busy defending everyone, I usually get attacked in the process. If the family insists on fighting and tearing each other apart, let them. But guard yourself in the process. You guard yourself by not trying to step in and rescue all of them. Sometimes, the best thing us rescuers can do is let them all duke it out. They may even figure out how to work it out afterward, and all without your help!

Leave if it gets abusive/out of control. If you have grown up in abusive situations, sometimes you feel as if you have imagined it’s as bad as it is and you feel awful that you not only dread the holidays with your family, but you are scared of the holiday season because you know what’s coming. Fear manifests in different ways: sleeplessness, nervous eating, inability to eat, unexplained weepiness, uncharacteristic short temper with things, and sometimes, even anxiety attacks. If you are experiencing these things around the holiday season it could very well be fear surrounding your family situation. If there is fear, there is likely abuse of some kind going on — maybe not physical, but mental and emotional. In those cases, either leave as soon as you can or don’t go at all.

Not going at all can really heap a lot of attack on, and about, you. It’s scary to step back and say, “This family isn’t healthy, and this year I’m going to protect myself and stay away.” Ok, it can be terrifying, in fact. Word may get back to you that you are a drama queen who has exaggerated things, and when you hear about it, it’s going to hurt your heart.

However, experience has taught me that no matter what they say about you for separating yourself and staying away, it will be one of the most freeing things you have ever done — painful, to be sure, but freeing at that same time. Fear puts you in bondage, whether it’s fear of emotional angst at the hands of a family member, or fear of outright physical abuse that may occur. Although words can hurt, especially when they are words that are untrue about you that resulted from your attempts to be safe, those words are nothing compared to the realization that hits you one day that you have broken out of unhealthy family patterns and are starting a new way of life, one that has its own happy, safe, and loving holiday traditions for your future family.

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