There are plenty (p-l-e-n-t-y) of things that might cause a rift in your family during the holidays. For starters, politics—that’s a given. Also, divorce or marriage problems can make things, um, tense. Maybe people have differing views on how certain fam members should be living their lives and no one can get through a Hanukkah dinner without talking about it. That’s family drama for you! (Sigh.)
If you relate hard to this, let’s take a second to normalize the emotional toll those weird feelings about your fam have: “Theoretically, the holidays should be a time of joy and relaxation and fun. But when you have a difficult family dynamic, it can feel like the holidays are work,” says therapist Erica Turner, LMFT. Yep.
So it's totally acceptable to feel sad about all that—the season isn’t always, and doesn’t have to be, super festive. “Lots of families struggle with these issues,” says Turner, “and it's OK to grieve that Christmas is a little bit more complicated since your parents got divorced or Thanksgiving is tough because you guys have really different political views.” Whatever the drama, you’re not alone in this.
Maybe you saw it coming, but this is where setting boundaries with your family can help you avoid conflict and deal with any tension that emerges. And if conflicts or passive aggression came up last year, don’t assume that it won’t happen this year, says Turner. Instead, maybe aim to spend less time with specific family members who trigger you, or do things that actually won’t spark conflict right away, like movies or Monopoly or both, she explains. “The hope is that you expand the opportunities for joy and you limit the opportunities for conflict,” she says.
Obviously you can’t prep for every possible thing that comes out of your mom’s mouth, but you can mentally prepare, Turner points out. What will you say when Uncle Paul gets painfully inappropriate? What about when Grandma (and Mom and Aunt Laurie and your cousins) demands to know when you’re having kids for the 20th time (despite you saying on 21 separate occasions that they’re not in your future)? Take mental notes or keep ideas on your phone.
Ahead, Wondermind readers talk about how they handle uncomfortable and not-so-great family drama when the holidays come around. Boundaries? Check. Diversions from awkward convos? You bet! See if what’s worked for them might be useful for you.
1. Pick a designated safe person.
“My middle sister and I really don't mesh. We never have, and there was a period of time where I didn't want her to be in my life. We are better now but still struggle, so you can imagine that the holidays can be a war zone. Our blowouts have, unfortunately, ruined holidays, family dinners, and valuable time with loved ones, which simply isn’t fair to us or our family. In navigating our relationship, I've found it’s best to find someone that I feel is safe. This safe person is someone that can see what's happening and help to either defuse the situation or offer an escape. In my situation, it often ends up being my oldest sister's boyfriend, but it has also been close friends, my parents, and even my therapist. The important thing is to find someone who won't fan the flames but will listen and support you. It gives you the ability to get away from the troublesome relationship and focus on why you're really there!” —Anonymous
2. Make new traditions.
“My holidays have always been complicated by the different takes on grief, mental health, and boundaries that my family and I hold. They like big, boisterous, traditional Latinx holidays, and I've realized I actually find loud social settings really overstimulating. They prefer to not talk about my mom’s and grandma's passing, and some years, the grief of missing them was all I could notice during the season, which made me feel invisible too. With the help of my therapist, I've truly learned that prioritizing my peace during the holidays helps me lessen the grief that used to eclipse the season. It isn't always easy to do so, and I still get questions about why I won't join in on larger celebrations. But for now, sticking to my boundaries is what's best for me.
The traditions that my boyfriend, our dog, and I are forming together help a lot (especially whenever the guilt trickles in) because of the fun and fulfillment I find in celebrating the holidays now. It's a version of the holidays that I didn't think I would ever have since losing my mom when I was 10.” —Vivian N., 29
3. Speak your mind or step away.
“As someone who has long struggled with anxiety and other mental health issues, spending the holidays with a family plagued by addiction, strong political ideologies, and a tendency to argue at the drop of a hat can be stressful to say the least. I have two go-to strategies, depending on the mood I am in. 1) I speak up. For a long time, I was hesitant to do so since I’m one of the youngest and my opinions differ from my family's on several issues. However, I have found that all it takes to bring an uncomfortable conversation to a halt is challenging a line of thought. 2) On the occasions where I am not feeling inclined to speak up, I step away. Taking a moment to breathe and remember that I have survived uncomfortable situations before makes the tough moments a bit easier.” —Allison M., 19
4. Have responses at the ready.
“Nothing rains on a turkey parade more than irritating family questions like, ‘When are you having kids?’ or ‘Seeing anyone special lately?’ or ‘Nice new coat, but shouldn't you be saving more money right now?’ When my family tests my patience, it helps to have selective hearing. Conflict requires two people, so if you don't engage, any invitation to go there fizzles out. I avoid questions I don't want to answer sometimes with a simple smile or laugh.
But I also love having my redirecting statements at the ready. I use things like, ‘Ya know, let's talk about that later,’ ‘Give me a hug. I know you love me!’ or ‘Let me have a drink first, will ya? (*Pours wine.*) Hey, so tell me about your new job...’ If someone’s really pushy, I say, ‘I know you care about me, but we both want to enjoy this time together, don't we? So can we please move on?’
When it comes to disagreeing on political topics, I like to say, ‘I can tell this is really important to you,’ and just move on from a conversation that is unlikely to go anywhere. This shows you’re listening, shows you care, and doesn't make anyone ‘wrong.’” —Susie M., 38
5. Find something to do.
“I spend holidays with my mom’s ex-husband's family and my mom's family. After my mom divorced my dad, she remarried. Then, she divorced him, but they got back together a year later. Now, we have holidays spent with family that we loved then hated and are learning to love again. So during holidays, it’s basically small talk and awkward catch-ups for missed times. I tend to hang with my mom in the kitchen to preoccupy myself with food prep. If not there, I sit next to my grandma with a glass of wine (or multiple), and we just watch everyone else. I don’t like being fake on top of having that same awkward small talk.” —Gina C., 30
6. Choose yourself.
“A standard Christmas is spent at my mum's, but, sadly, she passed away this year. My brother and dad don't get along, so I'm stuck between choosing whose house to go to for Christmas. Going to either place will cause arguments, and I don't want to deal with it. It's been this way with them for years, and my younger siblings find it easier to navigate. I've historically not wanted to upset anyone and bent over backward to accommodate them, which never usually works. My resolution is to work during Christmas, and if I can't get any shifts, I’ll say I'm working and hide out at my mum's place or sneak off to my BF's house and spend it there. I'm trying to put myself first.” —Anonymous
7. Holiday szn = self-care szn.
“Since my parents divorced when I was in high school 14 years ago, the holidays have always been a very difficult time for me. For many years, I didn’t see either of my parents or my three siblings. To make the holidays better, I take plenty of self-care time, whether it’s going on a walk, writing, doing a yoga class, or even something as simple as taking a bath.” —Chrissy H., 30
8. Create your own support system.
“I still don’t believe I’ve found the perfect solution for this. Ever since I got back in touch with my mom about two years ago, it’s been a tricky topic especially between my dad, my sister, and me. When I chose to spend Christmas with my mom last year, my dad completely cursed me out and then didn’t talk to me for close to a month. My dad is explosive and incredibly narcissistic, so I’ve found a support system who is there for me and can listen to me. I use my therapist, my grandparents, my mom, and my close friends.” —Sierra, 26
9. Remind yourself that you’re worthy.
“As the holidays get closer, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought of seeing certain family members you don't agree with politically or morally or who just don't support you for who you are. I take a few deep breaths and then remind myself what I do have control over. Even if I must see some folks I don't want to spend time with, I can say I don't want to talk about a specific topic (politics) or even take a break by stepping outside or going to the restroom. Above all else, I try to remember that I am strong, worthy, and needed here, even if the people physically in front of me can't express that to me.” —Drew T., 28
10. Put your needs first.
“I actively choose to not celebrate the holidays with some family members who helped raise me because they were making me feel worse, which defeats the point of togetherness and belonging. Of course, nobody is perfect. The family members that I celebrate with now include a range of personalities, and it can feel overwhelming if I haven't taken care of myself before entering the communal space. My family is respectful of me upholding my exercise and meditation routine during the holidays. If I have space to tend to my own emotional needs first, I notice I can be more present and be more tolerant of daily events (and, sometimes, family meltdowns).” —Anonymous
11. If it feels right for you, have a drink.
“To be completely honest, I have found that having a drink or two at holiday dinners calms me down. I breathe easier and feel less anxious about difficult family members, and then I grow more comfortable to speak my mind when tough conversations come up. When I speak my mind, I’m usually able to crack a few jokes and ease the tension, which can make these family gatherings a bit more fun.” —Marga S., 28
12. Watch movies.
“Last Thanksgiving my parents were fighting all throughout dinner, making it totally awkward. I decided to bring up to my cousin, uncle, aunt, and boyfriend that we should watch Cast Away. This worked, and we all just sat around and watched this epic film while my parents were fighting in the background.” —Angela S.
13. Make reservations.
“My family loves me (and vice versa, of course!), but we basically have nothing in common. On top of that, sometimes the weird dynamics between my parents makes things sorta tense. So, I’ve found that making holiday dinner reservations and booking movie tickets for right after is the move. IMO, it’s the best way to spend quality time together without spending TOO much time together (IYKYK). When you follow dinner with a movie, there’s no extra space for awkward pauses or silences to remind you that these people don’t totally get you. But if things happen to go particularly well, you can always get ice cream after the movie (hasn’t happened yet, but it could). I still get sad that we’re not one of those families that are obsessed with each other. Still, adapting to who my parents are, rather than trying to change them, has helped a lot.” —Ashleigh E., 33
14. See some fam before the holidays.
“Over recent years, I’ve made sure that I carve out time before Christmas Day to visit family members who I have more difficult relationships with to share presents and catch up. This is usually around two to five days before Christmas Day. I do tend to feel anxious around that day, but I can then move past that and spend the remainder of the holidays focusing on finding my own joy. I'm lucky enough to have found a partner (and his wonderful family!) who I enjoy spending the rest of the holiday period with. Sometimes the family that you find later on in life feels more like home.” —Jodie H.
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