Home for Christmas: Surviving Holiday Family Dynamics

Home for Christmas: Surviving Holiday Family Dynamics

The holiday season is upon us and whether you will stay near or go far chances are that you will be spending time with loved ones. For some that is a small, close knit group of friends, for others it is a large hardy gathering of extended family members and for the rest of us it is somewhere in between.  No matter what the type or size of gathering many people indicate that navigating family dynamics can be challenging at times.

So, what do you do? Is there any way to successfully approach these situations? How do you make it through this wonderful time of year that also brings family time to another level of intensity?

Here are some ideas that just might help you follow through on that song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”.

1. Get real…with yourself.

Christmas sitcom episodes, movies, and books become family traditions. That is ok as long as you remember that not every Christmas will be as touching as the movie, The Christmas Shoes.

Give yourself permission to have a sweet, tender, quiet (or loud and messy if you have a lot of kids like me!) imperfect holiday. If you start thinking that all of your friends have perfect Christmases get off of Facebook. If you are anxious because you cannot get all of the crafts done on your Christmas Pinterest board take a break from Pinterest. Facebook, Pinterest, Christmas movies…none of these are bad things unless you approach them as the picture and definition of YOUR holiday experience. You might want to read more here and here.

No one knows the definition or picture of your holiday season.  You are making that right now. Make it yours and no one else’s.

2. Don’t catastrophize…normalize.

Here’s the reality. It wouldn’t be Christmas without Cousin Eddie. Most families have a topic that everyone knows to avoid, a relative that will drink too much, another that tells you the same stories every year, and one that tries to get you to talk everyone else into going to Aunt Sue’s for dinner rather than Grandma’s. You are going to get stressed.  You are going to get tired. You probably will get annoyed. You might even get a little depressed. Is that the end of the world? Are you the only person on earth dealing with family and friend dynamics? Nope. And, you won’t be the last either.

The more you do what cognitive behavioral therapists call “catastrophizing” the situation the more drama you will experience. Adopt a “it’s no big deal” attitude and go with it. Barring safety issues, practice some good, old fashioned self-soothing, remember you are adult, and follow the sage’s advice: Deal with it.

Guess what? Once you remember that so much of this is pretty normal, you are freed up to take a deep breath and just take each day of the holiday as it comes….one day at a time. The more you remind yourself that there really isn’t anything to fight here…that you are on normal, known terrain…the more you will enjoy the special moments that punctuate this inspiring season.

3. Don’t speak for anyone.

Family relational patterns tend to get activated in stressful situations….stressful situations like Christmas. So if your sister has a tendency to get her feelings hurt in normal, day to day family life it is likely she will be even more sensitive during the holiday season. Other strange family behaviors can come out. Again, (see number 2) this is normal. Intense, stressful relational encounters bring out these strange relational behaviors and dynamics.

A common dynamic that rears its head even more in the holiday season is the phenomenon of triangles. See here for more information on triangles. The bottom line is this: do not talk for anyone else. If your brother says to you: “Hey, will you ask mom if it is ok for me to bring my girlfriend to dinner?” do not fall for it. I REPEAT: do not fall for it. Sure, it feels nice for a while to be the one your brother trusted and to be the one to save the day by talking to mom, but in the end you are committing a major faux pas for healthy family relationships. DO NOT GET IN THE MIDDLE. Make it your mantra so you can simply say: “Sorry, I have made it my motto not to speak for other people. I might say the wrong thing or misrepresent you.” You can help the person think about how THEY want to talk to the other person, but do not do the talking for them!

4. Be OK with them not being OK.

Whether you tell a loved one you won’t talk for them or you tell them no to some holiday plans…someone is going to be sad, upset, angry, or even just a little put off by you this holiday season. That is ok. Think of the last time someone told you “No”. It didn’t feel good, did it? Did you get over it? Sure you did (I hope so!). We all have to manage those kinds of feelings on a daily basis. It is called being an adult. If you think you can juggle and navigate all the feelings of your loved ones this season so that they never feel any negative feelings towards you…well, you must think you are pretty powerful and we need to have another discussion (see my future post on narcissism). You can also read more here.

5. Don’t assume.

Say you see your sister-in-law and she looks at you a little funny and you automatically assume she is upset with you for something…or thinks you are weird or…or whatever it is that you think people think about you! STOP…DO NOT ASSUME!  Here is what happens. You assume she thinks you are weird so you act weird in return, which makes her wonder what is going on with you so she goes and talks to your mother-in-law (what’s wrong with Mary?!) and then they act funny around you making you think that you really are unwelcomed when it all started because you ASSUMED you knew what your sister-in-law was thinking when she looked a little funny walking in when actually she was thinking about a friend back home who said something that made her frustrated. WHEW.

Don’t assume.  Don’t do it. Don’t mind read (read more here). Don’t try to “figure out” what someone is thinking. Don’t be paranoid. Don’t be a conspiracy theorist.

They aren’t thinking about you. You aren’t that big of a deal. Seriously.

And, if you say: “But, Emily, I really think that look WAS about me.”  Well, ok…but go check it out.  Don’t just stew about it all day. Go to your loved on and say something like: “Hey, I wanted to check in with you and see how you are doing. Are we ok? Did I do anything to upset you?”

Or, if you decide it isn’t worth checking into and you still think the look was about you…let it go.  Don’t invest time and energy trying to figure out how to finagle the relational dynamics in response.

And, they aren’t thinking about what you think they are thinking about. You aren’t telepathic…or omniscient. Leave that up to God.

6. Don’t Forget Humor

Sometimes you just have to step back and see the humor in situations. It is usually there for the seeing! Humor can be a wonderful coping strategy.

7. Remember that you are not twelve anymore…and they aren’t either.

One of the most common things I see in families is that when a person approaches mom or dad (or anyone else in the family) it is easy to revert back to a younger self. Sometimes this phenomenon is ok. However, if that younger self was insecure, anxious, and hurt it can be helpful to remind yourself (and that young part of you) that you are not that age anymore. You are an adult.  You have grown up. You don’t have to enter into your family realm as that little child. You can enter as a grown adult.

The flipside of that is true, too.  That aunt that hurt you by saying an inconsiderate remark thirty years ago? Well, guess what? Thirty years have passed for her, too. You probably aren’t the only one who has changed and grown in that span of time. Give your aunt some credit. She has probably changed, too.

People change. Families change. They grow and adapt and develop. It is one of the reasons I love working with them so much. They are resilient. They overcome. They are incredibly amazing things.

I promise that your family this year is not the same as it was last year…for better or worse.

Give your family (and friends) a chance. Be realistic in your expectations. Give them room to change and grow.


Take your hands off of your Christmas season.  Sometimes, out of fear and a need to control, we squeeze the life out of it. Take a deep breath and let it come. In this season of taking, deal stealing, and list making, allow God to GIVE you the Christmas season that is right for you and your family…so that your relationships this holiday season do more than just survive. Your holiday relationships can thrive!

Merry Christmas to you and yours.