The holidays are meant to be a time of peace, warmth, togetherness, and love. For many people, it is typically one of the only times when families come together and relish in a long-awaited reunion. But not every holiday celebration is as picture-perfect as a Hallmark card.
Sibling arguments, cousin rivalry, parental tension, that one weird uncle…it’s safe to say that no one’s family is necessarily perfect. Each family’s dynamic is unique and special, for better or for worse. But when these quirks threaten to disrupt Thanksgiving dinner, what initially started as comical bickering can result in a full-blown conflict that can ruin everyone’s holiday, as well as put major stress on your mental well-being.
Knowing how to navigate dysfunctional family interactions during the holidays is key to preserving your emotional health and ensuring a mentally sound environment. Mental health experts have compiled these tips on how to prep and get you through the Holiday weekend.
Mentally prepare yourself
Prepping before the big holiday can be equally as important as attending the day itself. When you prepare yourself mentally, it can help you get into the right safe headspace to handle the messiness of dysfunctional family events. Counselors recommend treating yourself to any kind of self-care that you personally find helps clear your head of stress.
“A little bit of mental and emotional preparation can go a long way,” says licensed therapist Lauren Dummit, LMFT, CSAT. “Keep your nervous system regulated so that you can calmly respond to stressors instead of impulsively reacting.” Some recommended ways to treat yourself include meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, journaling, or even an act as simple as taking a bubble bath. In the end, do whatever helps you decompress in a safe and healthy way.
Boundaries are important in any kind of relationship, but especially with family. It’s important to vocalize your comfort and limit the number of times you engage in situations that are harmful to your well-being. For instance, if you don’t feel comfortable discussing a certain topic, voice your discomfort and stand firm in the boundaries you are establishing.
“You have the right to feel safe at the holiday and so do your other family members,” says Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, certified counselor and vice provost of Walden University’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. He adds, “If someone’s behavior compromises that for you, your partner, guests, or (most especially) your children, you have the right to leave their space or ask them to leave yours.”
Communicating plans for the big day with family members can also construct a semblance of structure and organization. Planning out and sticking to a certain schedule, such as the time of the event, travel arrangements (if they need to be arranged), how long the event will run for, and any additional accommodations that need to be made can help make the day feel less out of control. Just be sure not to “over-plan,” as doing so can create unnecessary stress for you.
Know when to take Control
When it comes to planning, it is important to accept the reality that you may not have control over everything the entire time, which is fine. Mentally accepting this truth can play a huge role in how we may respond to certain situations. As many counselors agree, the one thing you do have control over is your behavior and your reactions. Likewise, you are not responsible for others’ behavior or their own actions. Distinguishing this reality and understanding where you fit into all of it can be one key way of preserving your own inner peace and not feeling guilty afterward.
Focus on the Holiday
Although it may not be the case for everyone, the holiday is a time to spark joy and family time. Even with the dysfunction, focusing on the season of giving can shift the priority to something that brings everyone together. Trying to be of service, and giving our time and energy can not only keep us occupied, but it can help us remember what this season truly is for.
Develop an Exit Strategy
While it is important to show our support for the family, sometimes sticking around is not the most mentally sound choice for us. Oftentimes with dysfunctional families, we may feel trapped and even suffocated. In this case, developing and strategizing an exit strategy can help us escape from the chaos. Coming up with an excuse, setting a limit on how long you want to stay, and having a backup plan can help us preserve the boundaries we have established.