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Navigating Difficult Times with Family Members

Now that we’ve discussed the importance of managing expectations of your family members during the holiday season, let’s figure out ways to successfully navigate difficulties that may come your way.


You’ve done your job, you have reasonable expectations of your family members in mind. That doesn’t mean problems won’t surface. After all, going back home for the holidays can bring up old family dynamics that you escaped when you moved away or left your parents’ home. So how do you maintain your boundaries, manage your feelings, and strive to behave differently within that dynamic?


One thing that helps immensely is to remember what took place during your last family visit. Did it go well, did you have a ball? Or did your visit end with anger, resentment and hurt feelings? If it went well, keep doing what you’re doing. If not, it’s time to try something new.


First tap into the any new skills you’ve developed since the last family visit. Maybe you’ve tried therapy, or added a process group to your routine. Perhaps you’re going to church more often, or you’ve tried meditation. You undoubtedly have grown and gained strengths you did not have the last time you saw your family. Use them! There’s no time better to practice than now.


Let’s look at an example: you go home and even though you’re an adult, your father treats you like a child, as though you never know what you’re talking about, and need to be told exactly what to do and how to live your life. When he starts to challenge your knowledge and question you, take five slow breaths before your respond. While you breathe, remind yourself that you are not a child, and you do know what you’re talking about. Taking slow breaths can force you to acknowledge the intensity of the moment. It helps you to respond clearly and calmly, instead reacting irrationally with anger or frustration. Once you’ve taken a beat you can say (in a neutral tone), “Dad I know you really care about me, I’ve got some ideas of my own, but I’ll definitely think about what you said.”  If he continues, or becomes upset it’s time to separate yourself from the problem. Engaging in an argument will prove nothing and get your nowhere.


We all have that one relative that has to argue with you on Every. Single. Little. Point. He feel as if he knows everything because he read a few books and religiously watches Dr. Drew and/or Iyanla Fix My Life. When that person tries to drag you into yet another argument, remember: You don’t have to RSVP to an argument just because you’re invited. If you feel you're close to taking the bait, pause; tense and release your hand muscles for a few seconds. This helps to release aggravation. Pay attention to the relaxed feeling you get. Then in a neutral tone, say something like, “Sounds like you know a lot about ____, that’s impressive.” Then keep it movin’.


As you sit down to a celebratory meal with your family this holiday season, think about the progress you’ve made this year. Think about the work you’ve put in on bettering yourself, on feeling healthier and finding more balance.  Use that positivity to find ways to recognize what you love about your family despite their flaws.


If your sister tries to argue with you, remember and let her know that you love the way she comforts you when you’re upset, or can joke with you about your parents no matter what. If your father belittles you, remember how he made you feel safe as a little kid. Whatever loving memories you have hold on to them, they can help you navigate the difficult times. And remember, after the holidays are over, you can always discuss with your therapist or your process group about how great, or how challenging family time during the holidays was.


That’s the beautiful thing about going to therapy--you always have a safe space to sort out the stuff you aren’t able to work through on your own, or share with your family.


Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanza, and Happy New Year!