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

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!

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

  1. Excellent advice and practical applications here. Especially enoyed the come-back of “Well, how did you meet . . .?” Ari, I really like your blog, it’s so informative and I’d write more but commenting is sadly a pain when we must write our names, etc. each time – please just know I’m reading your posts I=even if I don’t comment much,, great job! blessings for a warm and wonderful Christmas Season,

    1. Ellie, I greatly appreciate your ongoing support and readership! It makes me so happy when my writing is able to help connect and uplift people! Thank you and happy holidays!

  2. This is clear and concise. Enlightenment comes when you realise that, no, you do not have to sit there and take it. You inspire confidence so that others can find a way of dealing with difficult situations and people.

  3. Hi, I read your post before Christmas and I agreed completely. This year wasn’t the exception: discussion, stress because of the whole bunch of things we cook and as you said comments out of ine and almost a discussion with my brother. Wow! You’re so right and When was about to discuss with my brother because of an akward situation, I told him ‘wait I don’t want to discuss’ not today. Also I have had the questions you mentioned. So, I think I began to use your strategies! I’m not tired to say thank you Ari. I follow you on twitter as @robertomi2, best regards!

  4. Thanks for the insightful article. I completely agree that we should avoid toxic family situations if they exist. In those situations, our wellbeing and safety are of utmost importance.
    #2. We can always re-engage at another time when the environment is more conducive to constructive conversation.
    #3 doesn’t have to be a battle; it can simply be a statement that we’re not going to have this conversation or a healthy aggressive response that communicates our feelings about how we’re being spoken to. I often find that people lack the skills and awareness of expressing themselves assertively without being hostile.
    #4 of these choices is, of course, the most productive one, although not always easy, nor is family holiday get together’s usually the most comfortable place to execute it. I love your suggestion for acknowledging their concern and asking for advice. I think that’s great! I’m not sure it’s easy for those who haven’t practiced or learnt those skills. I guess it’s never too late to try and if our first attempt is during the family get-togethers at this time of year well hey! At least, we have something to look forward to and work on in the new year 🙂

  5. Hi! Thanks for such practical article ( tactical guide ). You saved the Holidays for most of us. We aren’t ideal in any age, but we can be a little bit closer to this state via these advices.

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