When Family Holidays are More Horror Than Hallmark

“Some families are messed up while others are fine
If you think yours is crazy, well you should see mine”    — Dropkick Murphys

There’s something about Christmas.  It has a special ability to build up expectations and tear them down, over and over.  There’s more trauma associated with Christmas than any other holiday.

If you and your family have those lovely Hallmark Christmases where everyone is happy and there’s never any stress or trauma,  congratulations, you can stop reading now.  For the rest of us, let’s talk about Dysfunctional Family Christmas.

For many people, Christmas is fraught with disappointment, family drama and a sense of obligation.  There may be mental illness or addiction in the family.  There may be strong differences in politics.  There may be years of grudges that can’t be overcome. There may be a lack of acceptance for someone’s life choices.  There may be fighting and tears.  In these cases, the question might not be “how to have a good Christmas”,  but rather “how to get through Christmas”.   If this is you, here are some suggestions:

Remember you have a choice:  Sometimes the worst thing about the holidays is the sense of obligation.  “I can’t not go to my parents,” you may tell yourself.  “It’ll just cause a big fight”.  Or maybe you think, “It’s not fair to keep my kids away from their grandparents because they drive me crazy”.   Totally valid, but it’s still your choice.  Your choice may be between having a miserable Christmas with your family, or having a miserable Christmas alone.  Your choice may be between going to Christmas and being belittled by your mother or skipping it and getting into a fight with you family about why you weren’t there.  You may not like any of the choices, but you have the power to choose which bad choice you want to go with.  Tell yourself “I’m choosing to do this” and you’ll feel less helpless.  And then make the best of it.

Go With Realistic Expectations:  Like the old saying goes, “expect the best but plan for the worst”.  If every family Christmas for the last 20 years has ended with fights and tears, don’t expect this one to be any different.  Go in with your eyes wide open.

Plan Ahead:  Ask yourself what scenarios may play out, then plan how you will respond if they do.  Before you react in the moment, pause and ask yourself what’s the best way to handle the situation.

Set Limits:  Decide before you go exactly how much you’re willing to put up with.  Set a time limit — promise yourself you’ll do four hours and nothing more.  Or to tell yourself you’ll stay unless a particular thing happens — like you’ll stay until people are visibly drunk or you’ll stay until someone insults your sexual orientation.  Then stick with it and leave when your limit is met.

Try Not to Recreate Childhood Roles:  When we’re around our parents and siblings we often find ourselves recreating our family roles from childhood: the mediator, the clown, the jealous sister, the tattletale.  When you notice yourself doing this, remember that you are an adult now and you don’t have to engage in the same way as you did when you were a kid.

Avoid Self Medicating:  It may be tempting to drink a few — or many — glasses of wine or pop some xanax to “get through the day” but remember that altered states rarely improve things.  You may be more likely to engage in a fight or tolerate insults if you’ve over-imbibed.  And it might prevent you from leaving when you want to.  If you’re going to self-medicate, just take the edge off,  and keep your senses sharp.

Set Some Agreements Beforehand:  Talk to your family ahead of time and agree that some topics are off-limits.  If politics are a hot button, agree that if someone brings up the president you’ll all change the subject.  If there are topics that will ruin the day and cause harm, avoid them like the plague.

Engage in Distractions:  For some families sitting around talking is the worse idea ever.  Distract yourself with activities in public. Go to the movies.  Go for a walk.  Eat at a Chinese restaurant.  Give yourself some space and the benefit of better behavior that usually comes with being in public.

Don’t Tolerate Abuse:  If things get bad, remove yourself.  You don’t have to be verbally, physically or emotionally assaulted just because it’s Christmas.  Look for ways to safely remove yourself from the situation.

Reward Yourself:  Promise yourself something healing once you’ve survived the holiday.  Take a bubble bath.  Go for a run.  Practice Yoga.  Get a massage.  Treat yourself.

Make This Your Last Bad Christmas:  When the day is done, ask yourself if you made the right choice by participating in your family gathering.  If you feel traumatized and miserable afterwards, consider making a different choice next Christmas.  Find a different way to spend the holiday next year, one that makes YOU happy.

Good luck my friends.   Do you have some other helpful tips that work for you?  Share them in the comments.

“Santa Claus has the right idea. Visit people only once a year.”       – Victor Borg

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