How to Avoid Family Drama Over the Holidays
11.20.17

Things I love about my family:

-The goofy Santa suspenders my dad breaks out every Christmas
-The way my aunt laughs like she’s trying to knock you off your feet with joy
-How we all express our affection by drinking wine and talking over each other
-How my brother, monstrously tall, casually picks up my mom’s bird-boned body under one arm and carries her around until she cries from laughter

By some fluke of fortune, I got lucky. My family is great. They’re great!

And yet, as excited as I am to head home for the holidays, I know that without fail, some combination of the following will occur: my mom will be hurt by an offhand comment that wasn’t intended as criticism; my dad will get annoyed by one of us approaching the kitchen while he’s trying to cook and he’ll spend the next hour refusing to make eye contact with anyone but his iPad; my brother will needle out my most sensitive bit and skewer it, sending me into a tailspin of anger that crescendos in a slammed door. Somehow, all that I’ve learned in the years of therapy and self-actualization and yoga that’s helped me become a grounded adult evaporates as soon as I walk through my parents’ front door. There are moments with my family where I hover above my body and wonder: Who is that whiny, petulant, needy kid wearing my clothes?

Our family roles are established early. How we learn to operate in our families of origin subsequently determines much of the way we navigate our world. And while my family dramas are benign, many are not. Being around family can mean drawing a veil over parts of your identity your parents refuse to acknowledge, the forceful excavation of old traumas, and the creation of new wounds. It’s precisely because our families are so important — or were, when we were developing into the people we’ve become — that it is so difficult to assert independence or modify behavior. Freud defined regression as a defense mechanism: in a stressful situation, we revert back to the safest version of self in order to cope.

“One of the difficulties for adult children is that they’ve been in a pattern their whole lives of being dependent, and having their parents orchestrate their lives,” says Dr. Susan Newman, a social psychologist who has written extensively on these complex relationships. “The challenge is to understand that you are an adult, and that you don’t have to bend to every request. Essentially, you need to learn how to assert yourself. Unless you don’t mind being miserable.”

Maybe you were competitive with your sister in high school, and even though you’re past keeping score, you default to snippy one-upmanship over whether walnuts or hazelnuts would be better with the brussels sprouts. Maybe your mom struggled to cope when you were going through puberty, so you respond with chilly defensiveness when she asks about your relationship. Whatever call-and-response pattern your family elicits in you, it’s likely one that is both familiar and uncomfortable, like trying to slip your new, adult body into a favorite childhood dress.

“Nobody intentionally sets out to aggravate or annoy their parents,” says Dr. Newman. “That’s not a plot plan. Like, ‘Mom’s going to call — let’s see how annoyed I can get her!’ Most children want to please their parents.” But considering all the inherent stress of the holidays — travel, disruption to routine — it’s not surprising that regression is a common way people cope.

The anxiety may also be reactive. “You might remember a bad experience, like an obnoxious uncle you have to sit next to every year, or an aunt who forces you to eat more than you want,” Dr. Newman notes. “Maybe growing up someone was always critical of you — your weight, your friends, your hairstyle — and you worry you’ll be criticized in the same way now, which automatically puts you on the defensive.”

And even if you want to sit this one out, that might not be an option. As Dr. Newman points out, “It’s never easy to say no to family. They are your lifeline. You don’t want to disappoint them, but in not disappointing them, you can disappoint yourself.”

How can you make this holiday season different?

Know your triggers

Before your next family gathering, spend some time considering what has set you off in the past. If you know that certain family members tend to provoke you, make a point of keeping your distance by offering to create a seating chart for dinner that positions you near people who make you feel comfortable and safe. If there are questions or lines of conversation you know will be uncomfortable, rehearse your answers ahead of time.

Set boundaries

A really neat thing about being an adult is that you are allowed to say, “No.” If you sense a fight brewing, or if a family member keeps bringing up a contentious subject, Dr. Newman advises simply saying, “I’m not comfortable discussing that.” I personally adopt a “happy and dumb” strategy: passive aggressive comments or implicit criticisms are met with a simple “Golly gee!” smile and a quick subject change. Decide for yourself what is off-limits and make a point of shifting the conversation if you sense things getting tense or feel yourself becoming anxious.

Breathe

Simple yet powerful. Regression is an automatic, adrenaline-fueled response. Sometimes, slowing it down can be as simple as a short breathing exercise to re-connect to your present moment. Excuse yourself to the bathroom or take a quick walk around the block and breathe in and out through your nose on a count of four.

Define your power

“You need to honor the fact that you are an adult, that you have a full life of your own,” says Dr. Newman. “Your parents and family need to respect that, and the only way that will happen is if you don’t let them bulldoze you.” If you’ve found yourself defaulting to “sullen goth teen” despite your best efforts, try redefining your family role. Maybe you’ve become a skilled baker since living on your own: offer to assume ownership over desserts. If you have 1,700 moody flower arrangements saved on Instagram, plan the centerpieces. Anything you can do to perform autonomy will remind you that you are a full, complete person outside of your family unit.

Above all, remember you’re a real human grown person now, with whims and talents and smarts and bravery all your own. As Dr. Newman says, “You have options now that you didn’t have as a child. All the perceived consequences of your actions are not actually going to play out. You don’t have to engage in the way you might have when you were a kid.”

Illustrations by Pauline de Roussy de Sales; follow Pauline on Instagram.

Get more Brain Massage ?
  • Eliza

    “my brother will needle out my most sensitive bit and skewer it, sending me into a tailspin of anger that crescendos in a slammed door” this coupled with the preternaturally tall brother and birdlike mother, i’m legitimately worried…are you me?

  • Rachel

    Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year (that’s how the song goes right?) but for me it’s always one of the most stressful. My parents divorced when I was young and I was always supposed to switch off between parents for Christmas every year but I always wanted to stick with the traditions that had been establish and stay with my mom for the majority of the holidays. Over the years things have gotten worse especially with more divorces and remarriages in my family and my dad moving an hour outside the city. And now I have to also spend time with my boyfriend and his family sometime over the 3 days around Christmas. Coordinating equal time between families is not an easy task and there are always some family dinners I enjoy more than others but to attend them I have to snub part of the family. Sometimes I feel like I’m being selfish when it comes to planning Christmas and where I want to spend time. It’s hard to strike a balance between being miserable or feeling guilt and trying to please everyone around the holidays. I love my family but sometimes I want to pull a “Christmas With the Kranks” and jet off for the holidays. I’ve always been envious of people like the author of this article who have one family, even if they do have little dramas and get on each other’s nerves.

    • Selena Delgado

      Same, it sucked having to share or switch Christmases. I always felt bad leaving my mom alone for the holiday but it was way more fun with my dads family. That feeling of conflict never left me until I hit my 30’s. Now I do my own thing but that initial ‘feeling’ of sorts brings me back.

  • Ciccollina

    Love this. It’s such a myth that everybody has these delightful, snuggly Christmases! At a particularly hard time with my mum, I decided to opt out of Xmas by booking a small holiday with my boyfriend for the day. Little did my parents know, it was more of a stay-cation; we booked a nice hotel in the city and treated ourselves to a bit of time together. It was a great way to recuperate from years of anxiety-ridden Christmases and look forward to the next one.

    • Rachel

      I love that idea! One day!

  • Vic

    Any tips for dealing with partner’s family? A Christmas with them means a house packed with people, many of them strangers, constant socialisation and dinner times I’m not used to resulting in extreme hanger…

    • Kristen J

      1.) Pack snacks that you like 2.) Doing the dishes to “help” but really it’s for “hiding” 3.) Going for an afternoon walk 4.) Doing a serious cardio workout the morning before the event, this always takes the edge off for me 5.) Knowing that the family really wants to see the partner and not actually you, so it’s ok to be slightly invisible and not fully engaged

      • Adrianna

        I recently had to go to a bridal shower for a childhood relative I haven’t seen in 15 years, and I was very happy to discover that my mom was as introverted as I was when she suggested we go outside for a walk to get away from all the loud chatter.

        • Kristen J

          Yes, it’s freeing to realize at most social gatherings, you aren’t the only one wanting to take a break.

    • Rachel

      It can be so hard! Especially when you don’t speak the same language as your partner’s family like me! Luckily I understand what they’re saying but I can’t respond back in French. When my boyfriend goes to the bathroom it’s particularly awkward because I just end up staring at them in silence

      • Adrianna

        My mom’s Polish, with limited English skills. I found myself translating between my American boyfriend and her during any sort of small talk or conversation. Ironically this went significantly smoother than the several times I’ve met my boyfriend’s American mother, who excluded me from conversations altogether. (I’m not bitter, it was just awkward.)

      • Basil

        I have the same – my husband is French, and while his parents speak English, it is limited and if you’re the only non French speaker around, it’s a bit awkward to force everyone to speak English. Like you – I understand everything, but I suck at actually speaking French (I only ever really do it when they’re around, so I don’t get nearly enough practice). The only solution I’ve found is giving them grandchildren: they’re super happy, you have a distraction and one day the kid can translate for you. It is quite an extreme way to deal with it though …

    • Cordelia

      Yes… how to learn to appreciate your own family? Just go to your partner’s family dinner… 😉

    • I echo the tip on packing snacks. I always have a bag of cashews in my purse, at all times, no excuses. Also get a cheat sheet from your partner on topics and questions that will engage their family and friends and take the pressure off you having to generate conversation.

    • Selena Delgado

      1) Eat before leaving the house
      2) Have a drink and a nap (or 2)
      3) Fake/make a phone call when you’re caught in an uncomfortable debate/discussion..

      Works every time!

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    I’ve arrived to a new level in my life, where I actually don’t care what people (who don’t matter) think of me. Yes, I want my close family and close friends to know I’m not an asshole, and that I care for them, but do I care if my aunt thinks I’m too thin? If my cousin likes what I’m wearing? If an in-law shares my political views? HELL NO! That (very hard earned) mindset helps me remain calm in certain (often inappropriate) situations, and get through them with a bit more ease.

    • Nancy

      True, but I’ve found that I really resent paying exorbitant holiday airfare to go spend a few days around people I don’t particularly care for. $500ish roundtrip is too much to go be fake nice and not truly enjoy my own vacation. Which is why I’m currently hanging out in Italy alone until Saturday.

      • Danielle Cardona Graff

        Hahahahah that’s a VERY valid point! And, Italy sounds lovely!

    • tuberoseandvetiver

      Ugh I want to be like you when I grow up. I loathe family gatherings.

    • Elli rvs

      HOW?? How did you do this amazing thing? please can you share? thank you.

  • Selena Delgado

    Whenever I go over to my mother’s house for Thanksgiving, I have to mentally prepare myself for her stress levels with regards to hosting duties and such. Growing up in a Latino family, I’ve been subsequently subjected to the role of my childhood, meaning, ‘no matter how old you get, you’re still a brat’. Comments about my weight, hair and occupation as a Behavioral Therapist are suddenly seen through a microscope; compared, contrasted and dissected with every comment and/or remark my family members could think of. This year is particularly stressful, due to the fact that my mother is now caring for her mother. My instincts are to help out a little more, but my heart tells me to not even show up. Tis the season.

    • Elli rvs

      I feel you…

    • I hope it went okay.

      • Selena Delgado

        Thanks. It was to be expected, although this year I flooded my schedule with a Friendsgiving so I stayed for 2 hrs and left before dessert. It was glorious .

  • Amber

    “Essentially, you need to learn how to assert yourself.” NO

    • Amber

      But also yes, I know

  • Caroline

    Somehow you have gone in my brain – pin pointed my worry and solved the problem. THANK YOU

  • ladybirda

    Don’t go back to the red state you grew up in where every member of your family except your Mom, bless her, voted for Trump. Invite Mom to your Friendsgiving instead. Enjoy the turkey without the side of racism and homophobia. Rinse, repeat.

    • Rose

      A little close minded, no? How can we expect others to open their minds and listen to our views, if we shut them away and pretend theirs are irrelevant? Sixty two million Americans voted for Trump. Dehumanizing them as racists or homophobic is VERY Trump-like (js..)

      • ladybirda

        I’m speaking specifically about my family. Who are homophobic and racist AND voted for Trump. I don’t feel like their views about my gay and transgender friends, or Muslims, or African Americans are relevant because I believe that all people should be treated as human beings and equally under the law, and they do not. And I don’t see the point of paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars to fly myself, my spouse and 2 kids for the privilege of arguing about basic human decency with a bunch of people who should spend less time on Facebook and in their church pews and more time reading a real goddamn newspaper.

  • I’ve been discussing this with my counsellor! She’s been teaching me about the psychological parent-adult-child triangle and so many of us are dragged back into child mode by our parents still being in parent mode, rather than talking adult-to-adult. The define your power is particularly poignant to me as I’ve always been the peacekeeper of the family, swallowed my feelings to look after everyone else and protect their feelings, mediate tensions between my parents and I feel like I don’t know who I am now I’ve moved out and am living my own life. I’m on a journey of self-discovery! My family are amazing too, but even amazing families who appear perfect on the outside have their skeletons and tensions.

    It all seems to so obvious to me now but our brains are funny things.

  • “Somehow, all that I’ve learned in the years of therapy and self-actualization and yoga that’s helped me become a grounded adult evaporates as soon as I walk through my parents’ front door. There are moments with my family where I hover above my body and wonder: Who is that whiny, petulant, needy kid wearing my clothes?” This is me.

  • Samantha s

    This year I’ve stocked up on board games. No time for talk, only time for Monopoly.

  • Yoly

    Wont it be amazing if we only had to worry about annoying family members than all this divisiveness among each other as humankind in 2017. I though the future was suppose to be a progression not a decline. Would we last?! Thoughts?

  • Could have used this yesterday! With a kitchen full of people, I was trying to finish baking biscuits and rolls while everyone was talking and standing around me. It made me so annoyed for some reason. Nothing even happened! But the stress, combined with many people in small spaces got me so worked up that I needed a timeout for myself. It’s hard to not regress.

    http://www.shessobright.com

  • Marielle Nicol

    “Somehow, all that I’ve learned in the years of therapy
    and self-actualization and yoga that’s helped me become a grounded
    adult evaporates as soon as I walk through my parents’ front door. There
    are moments with my family where I hover above my body and wonder: Who
    is that whiny, petulant, needy kid wearing my clothes?”

    Amazing.