It’s the Most Dysfunctional Time of the Year: Dealing with Family on the Holidays

Posted by in Parenting, Relationships & Marriage, Stress & Adversity

The holiday season evokes many joyous emotions and memories. Yet, research repeatedly demonstrates the increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

At the end of the day, when we gather among family, the experience for many is not one of joy, but dread. Sitting across the table from Grandma or Dad, and hearing a barrage of passive-aggressive questions just hurts.  

  • What ever happened to that last boyfriend, I liked him?
  • Are you still in that same job, I thought you have more potential than that?
  • Any plans for a New Year’s resolution to lose weight?
  • When are you going to give me some grandchildren?
  • Do you always let your kids speak to you that way?

The painful list goes on and on. How could it be that the very people who supposedly love us above all, are most critical? It always amazes me how well-adjusted, socially aware adults can be so clueless about the hurtful things they say to family around the holidays (or yearround in some cases).

If you are reading this and nodding your head, the good news is that you are not alone. This is a universal problem and you are in very good company. Unfortunately, however, we are not easily going to change how our families interact.

So what can we do to best handle these uncomfortable questions?

The first thing to keep in mind is boundaries. Some topics are either too personal or raw that they are just off limits, and its ok to clarify that to family right off the bat. 

But if we are to respond, there are essentially 4 choices.

  1. Avoidance
  2. Sit there and take it
  3. Engage in battle
  4. Disarm and connect

Avoidance is a miserable and lonely answer. If your family is truly toxic to you, where they are emotionally and verbally abusive, then avoid them. However, there is a difference between them being hurtful and being toxic. Most families are hurtful and dysfunctional, but not truly toxic, so give some thought as to how deeply they may affect you.

Option 2 is to sit there and take it, leaving you feeling pretty miserable about how your family treats you. That too, will just send you towards a bottomless pit of pain, and you don’t deserve to be mistreated like that.

The third option is to fight back. For some, this works well, as it creates conversations that are long overdue. However, it is often not without tears, yelling, screaming and using dangerously charged words like “you always” and “you never”. Furthermore, it comes with the risks of escalating a dysfunctional relationship to a non-functional one, where doors can be slammed permanently. That is something we always wish to avoid.

This is why I prefer the fourth option – disarm and connect.

Let’s look into the hearts and minds of our hurtful relatives. In most cases, they don’t ask these questions to be rude. Quite the opposite, in fact; they ask because they care about you. It stems from a place of them spending years nurturing your development and having lofty dreams and expectations of what your future would hold. Your very existence represents decades of investments that they have made in you. What they may fail to appreciate, is that you are now an adult, and their job is to be unconditionally supportive of wherever your life has taken you.

Knowing that their comments are coming from a good place of caring, concern and love, how can you translate them into a meaningful interaction?

Try using a simple question.

Instead of answering their query or getting into a debate, try holding up a mirror to them by asking if they could take you back and describe what it was like for them during that stage of life. This should not a cynical or snarky response, but a humble and genuine one.

Try empowering them to offer their buried wisdom and guidance from their own life-experiences. In other words, we want them to recall what it was like being in your stage of life. Perhaps by recalling their own challenges, instead of delivering barbs, they can give you the much-deserved support and unconditional love.

For example, suppose your mother says something like, “any plans to settle down and get married soon?” Your simple response can be, “it’s a tough world out there, but can you tell me some of the details about how you and dad met – maybe I can learn something”.

With a little extra humility, we can take the high road and be reminded that our seemingly obnoxious relatives are not actually trying to be hurtful, they just really care. Therefore, by redirecting the conversation, we can point them in the right direction of what family is supposed to offer – true caring and support.

So if dad asks how your startup business is going, but he uses air-quotes when saying the word startup – you can either get really annoyed, or just smile and ask for any tips from his own business experiences. You have nothing to lose by this approach and everything to gain. In the best case scenario, you will help take the relationship to a more mature and substantive level, increase the bonding, and who knows, maybe even learn something.

Family is forever. Enjoy and happy holidays!

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