10 Tips for Surviving the Family Holiday When Your Family Is Nuts!


1) Be honest with yourself! Once you’re honest with yourself and can say, “Yes, as much as I love them, my family is messed up,” you can begin to make plans to cope.

2) Ask yourself what you really want. You may be surprised by the answer. You may even decide what you want is to be with your family, warts and all. Once being with them is a choice instead of a gun-to-your-head obligation maybe you can relax.

3) Give yourself permission to have an escape route. If you want to try having dinner with the family make plans to go somewhere you can breathe easier for dessert. In extreme cases it’s a good idea to have a Plan B (i.e. leaving for good or asking the guest to leave your house) just in case.

Is asking a guest to leave rude?

“One has to do something to protect oneself if people are acting in a deregulated or unreasonable way.” ~Dr Smaller

So there you have it. Dr. Smaller and I agree. Take care of yourself first.

4) Don’t rely on alcohol to ease the pain. You do not want to be dis-inhibited when there is even one person in the room who can hit your buttons with an emotional taser.

5) See the humor wherever and whenever you can. It’s OK to roll your eyes as much as you want with your eyes closed.

6) Use the buddy system. Have a confidant close by or on speed dial; a friend, cousin, sister or niece who ‘gets it’. She may need your help to get through as much as you need hers.

7) Resist the urge to confront those who hurt you in the past. Now is not the time no matter how provoked you are. Trust me.

8) Having said that, if you are directly disrespected, or abused in any way, think ‘strategic retreat’.  This is like a time-out for grown ups. You could quietly, firmly say, “Please don’t speak to me that way,” excuse yourself and leave. Take the dog for a walk, go to a cafe for a decaf latte, listen to soothing music on your iPod, feed the ducks in the park and have a good cry. Give yourself 10-30 minutes to find your balance then rejoin the group. If the abuse persists go to Plan B (see above).

9) Breathe. 

10) Take responsibility for your own happiness. This is what the three ghosts taught Scrooge. No one was going to save him, not Marley, not his sister or his sweet fiancee, not even Tiny Tim. He had to do it himself.

Why do so many of us dread the holiday family gathering? Joyce Wadler, writer for the New York Times, tackled this question in Duck! It’s the Holidays. She put together a bunch of stories from the field, an oral history of holiday family horror stories. But before we get to the fun stuff, let’s hear from an expert:

Mark Smaller, who heads the public information committee of the American Psychoanalytic Association, said he believes that holidays can provoke “temporary regressions,” in which parents, adult children and siblings, once reunited, revert to decades-old patterns of behavior.

“The worst I’ve heard is when a parent says to an adult child, ‘See, when you come you spoil the whole holiday,’ ” Dr. Smaller said. “These kinds of remarks actually keep me and people like me in business.”

That’s the worst he’s ever heard? I’d like to meet Dr. Smaller; he sounds like a shrink with a sense of humor, my kind of guy. But I think he’s also trying to be nice. Temporary regression suggests that the people involved were “-gressed” to begin with. Or at least evolved. We can’t always count on that. However, if we’ve worked hard to grow up despite dysfunction in the family, holiday gatherings can be like a bad trip in Mr. Peabody’s WAYBAC Machine.

Above all things remember: Take care of yourself!


  • I like #10. So many folks don’t take responsibility for their own happiness.
    This is one reason some of my family members aren’t invited to my house for the Holidays. After 10 years of family members coming over from out of state and acting like an ass for the whole week and being made accountable for mistakes I’ve made when I was 15 years old (I’m 40 now), I finally got tired of it drew the line…the exiled are welcome to go to other family members homes for the holidays….just not mine.
    Have a great day Dr. Aletta!

  • Dear Rob,
    I’m so glad you know how to take care of yourself first (and that’s not being selfish, that’s being self-preserving) as in #2 & 3. Hopefully you still have other family and friends who are fun to hang out with over the holidays.
    Have a wonderful, happy Thanksgiving!

  • catestack@gmail.com

    I can totally relate to family reunion angst as I plan to drag my 3 children and 1 husband on a 23 hour car ride to spend Christmas with my very dysfuntional family.
    My parents are constantly putting down Americans and the U.S. I’m
    married to an American and have 3 American children. This makes
    things very uncomfortable. My husband has even said that he doesn’t
    want to hear all that crap from them and have to smile and be polite.
    They don’t miss a chance to make snide comments about Catholics
    either. My husband was raised a Catholic and two of my children are
    at a Catholic school. Again, we sit and smile pleasantly and take
    their insults. They also lament about women stealing jobs from all of the men in the world and they don’t konw their place any more. Yuck! I feel like I want to spend a Christmas with my
    family, warts and all, but on the other hand, it is going to really be awkward anduncomfortable because it always is. They will want to control all of our time and I’ll be trying to keep them happy, my husband happy and the kids happy. In the end, no one will be happy!
    I really like your 10 tips and I think I’ll print those off and keep them in my pocket.
    I find this particularly interesting at this point in life as we struggle to try and be good parents and raise happy, good kids and at the same time, they are probably doomed to this same dysfunction. Do you think that’s true? Can you overcome dysfunction?

  • Yes, you can overcome dysfunction. It takes work, and it doesn’t mean you will be perfectly without issues, none of us are, but you can improve on the dysfunction of your family of origin.
    I am struck by your first sentence, that you “plan to drag my 3 children and 1 husband on a 23 hour car ride to spend Christmas with my very dysfunctional family.” One way to start is to ask yourself what are the pros and cons of spending precious holiday time with your emotionally abusive family. Discuss this with your husband. What kind of modeling are you providing for your children if you are putting them and yourselves in emotional ‘harm’s way’?
    I am glad you are thinking about how all this effects your kids but remember, you and your husband must come first. It’s not to late to come up with a different plan, one you both agree on, one that doesn’t involve having to smile and take it.

  • Yep – the truth is out.


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