Coping with a Dysfunctional Family During the Holidays

By Katherine Mayfield, Special to USDR.

It’s hard to be joyful during the holiday season when your family is dysfunctional.  Gossip about other family members, criticism, and out-and-out fighting can quickly ruin a family gathering.  To make things worse, memories of family conflicts play through our minds like a repeating melody from an oldies song for days or weeks afterwards.

Family bullies can be even worse than school bullies, and most of the time we think there’s nothing we can do but put up with it, get through it, and leave as quickly as possible.  But you can minimize the effects of a dysfunctional-family holiday.  Here are six ways to help yourself get through and recover some of your self-esteem:

1.Beware the Drama Addiction!  For many families, the idea of reaching out and exploring the magnificence that life has to offer is so frightening that family members close down (sometimes especially as they age), and begin to focus instead on all the “dramas” in the family, adding fuel to each tiny problem and making it disproportionately huge.  A glass of spilled milk, muddy shoes on a clean floor, or the way someone chooses to dress for the holiday or parent their kids are viewed as extremely important subjects, because things like passion for a cause or learning new things or living life to the fullest are too scary.

Recognize that the Drama Addiction is just a habitual pattern.  It doesn’t have to be a way of life, and you can choose to focus on finding excitement in life instead of participating in the drama.  Expand your mind and your options rather than succumbing to the small-mindedness of others.  And remember that no one is dying, no one is going to the hospital, and the stressful situation can be over as soon as you decide to leave.

2.Try not to take it personally.  Some people would rather gripe and groan about someone else than try to solve their own problems.  So they look for someone else they can complain about, and offer their critical opinions, whether or not those opinions are based in reality.  When we take bullying and belittling personally, we start to feel that we’re doing a bad job with our lives – even if we’re actually doing well – and self-esteem begins to erode one block at a time.

Often, people who criticize or dump anger on family members are actually angry about other things – a rude boss, or a coworker who isn’t carrying his or her share of the work.  They may dump their anger on you because they feel safer doing that than they would directly confronting the situation that’s making them angry.  Let them gripe and groan, and pretend you’re watching a movie instead of being in the same room with the gripers.  Step back and get curious about all the stuff that’s going on – see what you can learn – and pretty soon your focus may be on how funny or ludicrous it all is, rather than how painful it feels.

3.It’s all about control.  Some people use criticism, guilt, and shame as a way to control other family members or to goad them into a conflict because they think family fights are more fun to watch than a football game.  Some people bully in order to feel powerful.  A bully feels weak, powerless, and one-down, so he or she has to put someone else down in order to feel “normal-sized.”  Bullying and criticism is not about who you are as much as it’s about who they are.  Sometimes just pausing for a moment and saying, “Excuse me?” from a strong stance allows the person to actually hear what they’ve said and realize that you didn’t fall for it.  This statement can defuse a barrage of condemnation.

Recognize that 90% or more of the criticism that’s directed at you may not have anything to do with whether or not you’re living your life right.  You’re probably doing what works best for you, even though others might do things differently.  Criticism is all about how small the family bully feels inside, and how desperate he or she is to put other people down or control them in order to feel stronger.

4.If you find yourself getting sucked into what the person says, take a break and go somewhere private.  When things got bad, I used to go in the bathroom and scream silently – one of the recovery actions I wrote about in my memoir, The Box of Daughter, which probably saved my sanity.  Shake your hands out, shake your head, let the tension out of your body, and tell yourself you won’t get caught up in the drama.  This takes some practice over time – it took years of practice for me – but by stepping out of the situation over and over, you’re reminding yourself of your separateness and your awareness of the dysfunction, and validating your desire to stay out of the traps and become mentally healthier.

5.Set boundaries.  Tell everyone ahead of time that you can only stay for two hours, or that instead of cooking the ham for the tenth year in a row, this time you’ll bring a salad.  You’ll need to be prepared for a backlash of “No!  You can’t change!  We liked you better when you let us control you!”  But you’ll be growing stronger each time you stick to your guns, and each time it’ll be easier.  Pay attention to your own needs and desires – they’re absolutely just as important as anyone else’s.

6.When you leave, leave it all behind you.  Ruminating over who said what and how awful it all felt for days afterwards is a negative habit that reinforces old emotional patterns.  Instead, remind yourself that the situation is over, and allow it to turn into a fading memory rather than constantly pulling it back into the front of your mind to relive over and over again.  Keep your focus on what you want to create in your own life, rather than on how others are holding you back.

For more tips and ongoing support for coping with a dysfunctional family, visit my blog at  And remember – people who are often criticized by others tend to be very critical of themselves as well.  Have compassion for yourself, and treat yourself with kindness.  Most of us are actually doing a better job at everything than we think we are!

Happy Holidays!

Katherine Mayfield is an award-winning author of several books on recovery from family dysfunction. She is also a blogger about dysfunctional families on her website,

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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