Coping With Family Around The Holidays

November 24, 2019

The holidays are upon us. Many of the folks I work with are beginning to talk about the feelings that are coming up about seeing their families or the grief they feel over wanting to see their families, but it not being possible. For some not seeing their families around the holidays is an act of self-preservation, yet it does not make the choice any easier. If you will be seeing your family for the holidays I’ve created some suggestions to help you take care of yourself while navigating family dysfunction.

Keep the visit short

If visiting family is something you want to do consider making the visit shorter than usual. If you’re not sure whether you want to make the visit in the first place I highly encourage taking the time to journal, check in with yourself, talk with a trusted friend, or talk with a therapist about visiting out of choice, not obligation. Even the person who’s done a lot of therapy work around their family can be challenged during a visit. It can be really difficult to keep yourself from falling back into old family roles, especially the longer the visit. Have you ever noticed there’s a threshold of tolerance? For a period of time being around your family feels okay and then suddenly it becomes too much. I once heard someone say the best ending to a family visit is one where you leave feeling like you’ll miss your family, knowing if you would have stayed just one more day you’d probably want to pull your hair out.   

Set realistic expectations

Sometimes it can be helpful to adjust your expectations because there are so many of them around the holidays and having too high expectations can just add to the let down. In an ideal world all families would be happy, warm, and loving, you would be able to buy all the presents you want without worrying about finances, and the holidays would always feel like the most wonderful time of the year. Unfortunately, these expectations cannot always be met because life doesn’t work that way. Adjusting your expectations about what the holidays are supposed to be is step one. Adjusting your expectations about the behaviors of your family members can also be helpful, especially when your family doesn’t fit the cultural idea of how families are supposed to be around the holidays. What are the behaviors of your family members that trigger you? And knowing that these behaviors may happen how do you want to take care of yourself if they do happen? For example, if you know your mom and step-dad may get into an argument you can prepare yourself for how you want to handle the situation if it happens, which could include leaving the house and going for a walk, or having some friends available on standby to call.

Nurture your inner child

Sometimes we find ourselves responding from a place that doesn’t quite feel like ourselves (or feels immature) when we’re around family. This could be related to a younger version of ourselves showing up and taking over, especially if we’re feeling emotionally triggered. This can be something to keep an eye out for because you may need to give that younger self some nurturing and care for the feelings that are coming up and then remind that younger self that you’re an adult who now has choices in the situation (which likely wasn’t the case when you were a kid). How would you do this? I would recommend finding a space where you can be alone (unless there is someone with you that you trust and can share what’s happening), close your eyes and imagine the younger self that is calling your attention. You can then have a conversation with your younger self about what they are feeling and experiencing and provide them the care, validation, and understanding that they need. Another alternative to this would be listening to one of Tara Brach’s RAIN meditations. This is a 12 minute version https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/tara-brach/id265264862?i=1000455565383

Continue self-care habits (before, during, and after the holidays)

I know this can be challenging with the hustle and bustle of holiday travel, relatives visiting, and the whirlwind of events around the holidays, but it can pay off tenfold. If you meditate or journal in the mornings take the time to do it during your family visit, even if it’s for 5-10 minutes! If exercise is part of your self-care routine find a local gym that offers a day pass, go for a brisk walk, or bring your yoga mat and do a few poses. Use the coping strategies you’ve learned to calm big emotions. If you find yourself becoming worked up give yourself the space you need, even if that means telling your family you need to use the bathroom. One simple mindfulness strategy is finding five objects of the same color within visual range. Another mindfulness strategy is going back and forth between noticing an object, smell, or sound within your environment and noticing a sensation within your body (feeling your breath leave your nostrils. feeling your feet on the ground, noticing the feel of your pants) and continuing that practice for several minutes.

Use humor and play dysfunctional family bingo with your friends!

Make a list of the upsetting, irritating, and frustrating things you encounter when you spend time with your family and share it with your friends who create their own lists. Then you create a bingo card filled in with the items from the list. Each time one of the items occurs you mark your card and let your friends know. A simpler version of this is having a group text where you send a message every time one of the items happens. Sometimes humor is the best defense, especially when you can share your experience with others who are going through something similar. Here are some examples to get you thinking:

  • Mom or Dad goes on and on about something seeking your approval
  • Someone gets sloppy drunk
  • The tension in the room could be cut with a knife, but everyone ignores it.
  • Aunt Judy makes comments about someone’s body or weight.

If you’d like some instructions and a downloadable bingo card visit:

https://marthabeck.com/2015/11/make-the-madness-a-game/

Honor your grief (even if your family ignores theirs)

Whether you lost someone recently or years ago, the holidays can be a really difficult time, especially if your family doesn’t have the skills to allow and process grief (or most emotions in general). No matter how long ago your loved one passed away you may experience grief from time to time (and that’s perfectly natural). Grief is one of those things that does not fit into a neat little box. The more you can allow your emotions to be the better. And if your family doesn’t provide a safe space for allowing emotions think about how you can get support and provide yourself the space to feel your feelings. This is another situation where I would highly recommend trying out Tara Brach’s RAIN meditation because it’s a simple (yet profound) process of providing space for feelings that come up and it promotes self-compassion.

Give yourself an extra day off after the visit

Give yourself extra time after you return back to your home and make plans to care for yourself. If there’s dysfunction in your family you may feel wiped out, extra sensitive, irritable, or withdrawn after seeing them. And whether or not you can get an extra day off before returning to work make plans to see your therapist, get a massage, or spend time with the chosen family who sees you and supports you.

If you’re interested in scheduling a therapy appointment or free 20 minute phone consultation please visit: https://www.bodywisdomcounseling.com/appointment-request/

Wishing you self-care and nurturance during the holidays!

Cher Hamilton-TekautzCher Hamilton-Tekautz is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Chicago. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with Master's in Social Work and a Graduate Certificate in Complementary Therapies and Healing Practices.

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