Turkey, Trees, and Surviving Dysfunctional Family Holidays

Relaxing Christmas

Holidays are now more relaxed…

What I share here is from my experience as the adult child of alcoholics, but it may apply to people who have lived with other challenging relationships. I’m not a therapist or an expert on anything except for my own life.

Holidays are some of the most challenging times for children who grew up in a dysfunctional home. The family dynamics are strong and often haven’t changed for a lifetime, but you have changed, grown and healed. Your progress can upset the norm and creates often uncomfortable moments.  Here, I’ll give you some suggestions on surviving the holidays by setting boundaries and caring for yourself.

Coping with the season

Below are a few tactics that have helped me cope with holidays and family events. We all have different needs, so use what works for you. There is no right or wrong here.

Brace yourself, in a healthy way

My big miss this year….I had a blind spot. I thought I was in a nearly unshakable place emotionally until the holidays drew near. Then a bunch of old feelings rose to the surface and I was caught a little, okay more than a little, off guard. If I’d realized how much the prospect of a holiday as a guest at my parent’s house would bother the healthy adult me, I would have been more proactive about bracing myself. Instead I dissolved into a mascara-streaked, teary, mess. I should have sought support sooner.

What won’t help is replaying the worst-case scenario through your mind over and over. I’m not suggesting you ignore your fears, which would be very bad; just don’t let them become your only focus. Talking to someone, and perhaps taking the action steps below, will help you feel more in control of your role in the situation. Be open to a positive experience, it can happen. Especially when you set boundaries such as having a space to retreat to, more on that shortly.

Remember that you can only control your actions, not those of your family. Notice that every suggestion below is something YOU can do. None suggest you try to change or control anyone else. That would be futile. Let me say it again, you can only control your actions (and reactions for that matter).

Sit in the driver’s seat and host

I began this without realizing what a good move it would be, and it has worked wonders. By hosting holiday events at my home, I controlled the guest list and flow of alcohol. Limit the booze, and over-consumers will leave before getting too snockered. Or don’t serve alcohol at all. Unfortunately, because I recently moved, this option isn’t as easy anymore so I needed new strategies.

Have a space to escape to

Now that I’m a guest at holiday events, I make it a point to have a private space to retreat to if crazy shows up. If you’ve lived through this, you know what I mean.

You could rent a hotel, stay with healthy friends, or even camp. In my case I’m staying in my parent’s mini RV. No, they don’t understand why I won’t take the guest room, and they don’t have to. Boundaries.

Focus on the positive relationships in your life

Friends and other adult children have suggested that I turn my focus toward my positive relationships. I’m taking this advice to heart and really pouring energy in that direction.

Don’t beat yourself up…it was real

When you’re up to your eyeballs in well-established relationships, such as with your parents, it’s really hard to not feel guilty for the negative feelings you carry from childhood, or even adulthood. After all, as kids we look up to our parents and continue to as adults. In my case I strived to be the perfect daughter, thinking that would win their favor, so standing up for myself doesn’t come easy. Don’t beat yourself up for your honest feelings. What happened was real and you have a right to care for yourself now.

Boost your fitness

The mounting stress and anxiety of the holidays can be really hard to bear. The more it wears on you, the harder it is to maintain a positive outlook. Worse yet, it’s easy to slide into a full-on funk.

One way to combat this is through exercise. “Sufficient evidence now exists for the effectiveness of exercise in the treatment of clinical depression. Additionally, exercise has a moderate reducing effect on state and trait anxiety and can improve physical self-perceptions and in some cases global self-esteem,” states Dr. Kenneth Fox in his article, The Influence of Physical Activity on Mental Well-Being (Public Health Nutrition, 1999)

On the morning of my flight I went for a trail-run. It was just what I needed after a night of anxiety, tears, and insomnia.


Another important activity is helping others. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that, “in general, volunteers report greater life satisfaction and better physical health than do non-volunteers, and their life satisfaction and physical health improves at a greater rate as a result of volunteering… (Van Willigen, 2000)”

I’ve made a habit of adopting some kind of project during the holidays to move my focus from myself and my stress, to making other people’s lives better. It works.

I do other forms of charity work throughout the year, but a holiday project is especially rewarding for me. It is the antithesis of the holiday scene of my childhood. I’ve already built years of positive memories that fit my values. When I think about Christmas dinners at Quest’s independent living facility in Orlando, I feel joy, appreciation, friendship and acceptance. You can’t buy that experience; instead you must to give to receive.

The results of my own trip

I’m finishing this post at home after traveling to my parent’s home for Thanksgiving. I used many of the tips above to help me through. So how did I manage the holidays? Very well! I stuck to my boundaries and my family respected them. They were great!

Overall, I carried a level of tension inside of me throughout the visit that didn’t dissipate until my flight touched down in Salt Lake City. I hope that will improve as I learn to trust that my strategies work.

Holidays aren’t the only time these issues surface, weddings, birthdays, graduations, all have the potential to fire up old family dynamics. Don’t expect them to change, instead, plan ahead and change how you deal with them. Then create beautiful memories to replace the painful ones. In that, there is victory…and peace.

Here is another post that I found valuable, Surviving the Holidays: 10 Tips for Adult Children of an Alcoholic

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