“These People Are Driving Me Crazy!”: Managing Difficult Family Dynamics During the Holidays


woman raising a glass of wine to toast with family at Christmas while kissing her baby's foreheadThe holiday season is upon us! And as we plan to gather ’round the table with families big and small, many (or most?) of us can anticipate at least a few stressful or challenging moments with our loved ones.

I don’t know about you, but my experience is that family roles die hard. I haven’t lived at home with my parents and sister for 15 years, but put me back in that setting and I may as well be 15 again: easily irritated, overcritical, and messy. Ridiculous, right? But I bet at least a few of you can relate. Psychologists (including me) will tell you that it’s very common to regress back to familiar and well-worn family dynamics when the conditions are right. And there’s no more “right” condition than when we join one another to celebrate the holidays.

So, knowing this, how can we keep this festive season from turning disastrous a la the Griswolds from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Here are a few tips to keep in your cornucopia of family-sanity skills:

Expectations vs. Reality

Advertisers have set up virtually every American to expect a magical, twinkling, cocoa-by-the-fire-while-gazing-lovingly-into-your-family’s-eyes kind of holiday season (at least on some level). And while we’re all hoping this year will live up to what we’ve seen on TV, many Americans are simultaneously holding onto disappointments about the realities of our past holiday experiences. That combination is a recipe for ho-ho-horrible feelings (forgive me, I couldn’t help myself!).

In this case, the key to happiness is aligning your expectations with a probable reality. If you’ve never gazed lovingly into your brother’s eyes by the fireside (and who has?!), it would be unrealistic to expect much different this year. At the same time, there are probably many real moments you’ve had with each member of your family that are funny, loving, and endearing in their own ways. And when those moments aren’t compared against a Hallmark card, they likely twinkle much more brightly. Focus on finding and encouraging those moments.

Prioritize What’s Really Important

Don’t get me wrong, I love Pinterest as much as the next gal. But browsing pins during the holidays can be downright dangerous — before I know it, I’m planning to serve a homemade pumpkin pie with hand-harvested vanilla bean, make 37 knitted gift scarves, and work a classy partridge and pear tree into my table decor. For me and many other mamas, the holidays can quickly turn into a giant to-do list. Stressful! Not only for ourselves, but for our families. Because every moment we’re engaged in such projects, we’re not as present and available for memory making with our loved ones.

The fact of the matter is, our families could give a hoot about the partridge (still need to look up what that is, exactly) and would much rather spend that time with us. And without the stress of having to finish these projects, we are likely to be in a more relaxed, receptive, and connected mind frame. Not to mention less exhausted and/or covered in hot glue!

Give Grandma a Break, in Advance!

Maybe it’s grandma’s snarky comments at the Thanksgiving table, your dad’s obnoxious insistence on impersonating Santa, or your aunt’s ultra-cheery desire to carol. I’m talking the moments that make you cringe and have the power to bring out your inner Grinch. Whatever your family dynamic, you probably have at least a few holiday annoyances that you can predict ahead of time. 

My family has watched A Christmas Story every Christmas Eve since I can remember. My sister and I would get almost uncontrollably annoyed when, during the scene where Randy is “eating like a piggie,” our mom would predictably say, “He’s not even getting any in his mouth!” Now, it’s a moment we look forward to, knowing it will cause a full-family crack-up. With a quick shift in perspective ahead of time, we’re able to see that her comment is her way of trying to engage us during a valuable family tradition. And since it is just too difficult to laugh and roll our eyes simultaneously, we give her a break and do the one that’s more fun.

Timing Is Everything

Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but the holidays are generally not the best time to bring up long-held resentments or “family talks” you’ve been avoiding. Negative memories have a way of attaching themselves to the circumstances around them, and no one wants to associate future holidays with yelling, crying, or awkward silence. Those things may happen anyway, but if we can anticipate that certain conversations will bring them on, we’ll be better served in the long run if they happen on a random Tuesday rather than a holiday that we’ll be reminded of next year.

Acceptance, Acceptance, . . . and Acceptance

Remember when I said family roles die hard? It’s true. And when they do, it’s rarely spontaneous, comfortable, or easy. Whatever your or your family’s imperfections, they’re okay. We’re all deserving of love, forgiveness, and grace, and the holidays are an excellent reminder of that. So, this season give yourself and your family the gift of acceptance by allowing everyone to be their wacky, weird, annoying, loving, and perfectly imperfect selves.

Happy holiday memory making to you and yours!

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Graduate school brought Laura from her beloved home state of Colorado to Texas (hard to beat the Rocky Mountains!), and meeting her beloved husband Jonathan convinced her to settle here. Now the two are overjoyed and exhausted parents to sweet Christopher (2015) and a little girl on the way (2017). In addition to her role as a mama, she also works full time as a clinical psychologist working with military veterans who continue to amaze her with their strength and humor. When she’s not busy juggling career and parenthood, you can find her cycling, enjoying local culture (and food!), baking, “hiking,” and embracing her love of travel.


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