Navigating Difficult Family Relationships at the Holidays

the-dysfnctional-family and difficult family relationships


By Dr. Margo Jacquot

Holidays are a time when family gathers from near and far. For some that inspires joy and excitement, but what about difficult family relationships? What do you do when you don’t really care to spend time with your family? Or what do you do if you want to see some members of your family and that person who just drives you crazy will be there too?   Or how about when you really want to get along with this person but you just can’t…like an Aunt or a Cousin who sets your teeth on edge.

Pre-Gathering: Getting your hopes up.

It’s another story when you have a complicated or conflictual relationship with someone very close to you. You may love your Mom with all your heart but she is incredibly critical. Maybe you get your hopes up that she will be okay with you this time. Maybe she’ll like who you are dating or will say something kind about what you’re wearing or your parenting.  Or maybe she will just refrain from saying something that hurts your feelings and makes you feel less than.

Perhaps your issue is with your father who is self-centered and who thinks about himself and his needs first.  He is unable to hear honest feedback about his behavior and places the blame squarely at your feet if something goes wrong. You hope that he will not comment that you are too sensitive or that you are selfish for wanting what you want when it differs from what he wants.  Perhaps you believe that your father is capable of seeing you as a separate person who can have a life and desires that are other than his, only to find, once again, that the painful truth of his need to be the center of all prevails.

Break the Cycle: What to do to not set yourself up.

Kids can disappoint their parents repeatedly in these very same ways.  This is true for siblings as well.  I will address these two groups in coming weeks.  So what do you do to prepare for difficult family relationships and not set yourself up?

  • Be real with yourself.

    As painful as it may be, history is your best teacher. What your parents have done historically is likely what they will do in the future.  Of course you hope and wish and may even have situational amnesia that makes you believe this time will be different.  Do not confuse hoping and wishing with what you know to be true.

  • Be willing to have an exit plan.

    Exiting does not have to mean cutting the person out of your life. In this case, exiting means just that, leave. When an interaction unfolds in the old, predictable fashion and you are feeling hurt or angry and do not want the situation to devolve into an argument and more hard feelings, walk out of the room or excuse yourself and go home.   There will very likely be other opportunities to see the person or other family members and there is no need to stick around and feel lousy.

  • Be clear and direct.

    When calm, you might want to inform other family members and perhaps even the person with whom you are struggling that if and when conversations turn difficult, you plan to……(leave the room, go home, hang up the phone, change the subject, ignore the other person, etc.) Know in advance that you may be accused of being too sensitive or of running away or of misunderstanding. Your response can be, “I understand that’s how you see the situation. I don’t agree and I just don’t want to hear any more today. “  There is likely nothing you can say or do that will keep them from misunderstanding you further in the heat of the moment, but being prepared is always better than being reactive.

Accepting that the person’s criticism or personality traits are about them, not you, can help ease the sting.  Such acceptance tends to be a process, not an event. Sometimes people need to work with a therapist or counselor to work through the really difficult feelings that are common among adults with parents like the ones described above.

Be gentle with yourself as you work toward these goals. The outcome is worth it!

Photo credit: Pinelake Videos


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