Your Guide to Dysfunctional Family Holidays

Here in the middle of this most wonderful time of the year, are you feeling the strain to pretend that wonder and merriment is your reality? Holidays (and celebrating them) feel a lot different when you’re bound to a dysfunctional family. Whether by marriage, blood, or a sense of obligation that encompasses both and then some, family has a lot of sway over the tone of the season. 

If you’re searching, “how to survive the holidays with family,” or trying to make something special out of this especially stressful time, our Awakened Path team has got you covered with tools to make your least favorite parts of family holidays a little more comfortable. 

Traits of Toxicity in Families

Toxic family members can be one of the most insidious complexities in love and relationships. Maybe you have someone in mind that seems to sour the joy of the holidays no matter how much you prepare yourself to see them. 

My guess is that you’ve landed on this article for a shred of validation to check yourself, to discover whether there’s rhyme or reason to the family dysfunction that seems to linger this time of year. 

In truth, learning to spot those people can give you back your power before it’s taken. 

Do they…

1. Thrive off being the center of attention even if it’s negative attention? 

This person (or people) is happy to engage with a bit of drama at the expense of everyone else’s peace if it means they get to be the star of the show for a little while. Whether that’s a blowout fight or a shocking announcement, these inevitable attention grabs can make it difficult to relax and enjoy the experience even when it’s going well. 

2. Collect wounds from past experiences and use them as armor—or weapons? 

When instances of real trauma take on a life of their own and become a complex for invalidating and undermining other people’s experiences, that person is making everyone else a victim of their pain. It’s difficult to separate real trauma from the perceived ways they put it on someone else, but you are not responsible for what’s happened to them even when they try to make you feel otherwise. 

3. Dish out arguments but cannot seem to hear the truth in your defense?

We’ve all met that person who just has to be right, and will loudly bait others into arguments that they never lose (even when they lose). But what if that person is next to you at the dinner table for every holiday, every year? It’s difficult to cope with being backed into a corner of confrontation you don’t know how to get out of and when you know it’s coming, the tension often rises before the person has arrived.

Do those things sound familiar around your holiday table? It’s rough to know someone is toxic, especially when you love them and want them to change. You can’t change them, but you still retain a lot of control over your reactions.  

Tips to Help You Through Dysfunctional Family Holidays

We want to help you feel confident in your boundaries so you can bring a little peace to your own inner self even amid the dysfunctional family dynamics that are sure to arise. 

1. Bring a Buddy 

When stress is high, we can all use somebody to lean on. Try not to go into these situations without backup that feels firmly on your side. Bring that person along who will make sure you feel supported through the experience. That might be your partner, your children, or a friend—it doesn’t particularly matter so long as you feel comfortable and confident in the experience of sharing these events with them. Have conversations about your fears and stressors so you can prepare together for what to expect.

2. Set realistic expectations—and boundaries 

Family holidays aren’t therapy sessions (though if you’re looking for that, we can help). Maybe those boundaries look like red-listing contentious conversation topics or setting a timetable to the gathering that you won’t deviate from. Sometimes family wants to weigh in on everything from your holiday nutrition habits to your relationships to your life choices.

Whether you need to remove yourself or ask someone else not to attend those holidays, take time to recognize where you need to draw the line. Expect that those boundaries will be upheld—even if you’re the one upholding them and decide how you’ll respond if they’re violated before it happens.

3. Make logistical switches for comfort 

Does staying with your controlling sister make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells? Then don’t. If you can make your budget work, gift yourself the freedom of your own accommodation. Whether that’s a vacation rental or a hotel, do what you need to do. It might mean you choose to stay with another family member or friend, but whatever that looks like for you, having the space to decompress with a book or a cup of tea may give this holiday season more breathing room.

Reminders for your heart this holiday 

There’s more to making the most of this stressful season than recognizing and responding to the things happening around you. Take a moment to spend time caring for yourself with helpful reminders for holiday hurt.

1. You are not obligated to their judgments 

Toxic family members who need therapy themselves are often most critical of those who see therapists. Just because you are engaging in the important work of unlearning trauma does not mean you are responsible for their hurt. Your commitment to healing does not absolve them of their responsibility to do that work for themselves, and there is no reason for you to feel hurt or be hurt in their efforts to offload that. 

2. Relying on old coping mechanisms happens. 

When it comes to our families, it can be hard to center the work we’ve done on new healing in old relationships. Past feelings and responses often crop up without our notice when we find ourselves reliving familiar experiences. 

Give yourself permission to recognize these things when they occur, and use those moments to make a plan for responding to them moving forward, but don’t punish yourself for reverting to what once helped you survive. It happens. 

3. It’s okay to be anxious (and go anyway) 

You aren’t betraying yourself by deciding to attend a holiday event or seeing people you know will bring up big emotions for you. Even if you know it will be stressful, or anxiety-inducing, you can decide to go without deserving to feel those things if that’s what makes you feel most complete. Recognizing our triggers and managing them is something to be proud of, so long as you’re true to yourself in doing so. 

“If You Think You’re Enlightened, Go Spend a Week With Your Family.”   -Ram Dass

This quote is funny, but it’s also true. Spending time with our family can bring up old feelings (and habits) that make you feel the weight of the dysfunction that’s been a part of your family life for so long. You can love your family and recognize these struggles without betraying yourself just as you can love yourself without removing your family from your life even when they’ve hurt you before. 

There are so many layers to dysfunctional family relationships but you are capable of navigating them with your whole self. If you’re wondering how to survive holidays with family, there may be some unhealthy relationships that could be improved through therapy. And when the holiday season is done, Awakened Path will still be here to help you walk the path of healing you’re working so hard toward. 

Awakened Path Counseling proudly provides quality transpersonal and traditional psychotherapy, at their offices in Middlesex County, New Jersey, and online. Their experienced therapists specialize in serving teens, children, adults, couples, and families. The experienced clinicians at Awakened Path Counseling are passionate about their holistic approach to mental health, addressing your emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual needs.


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