10 Steps for Surviving a Dysfunctional Family Christmas

Surviving a Dysfunctional Family ChristmasTo butcher Tolstoy, all families are dysfunctional in their own way — especially around the holidays, when stress and expectations are sky high.

Being a communicator by profession, I naturally believe most problems can be solved with communication (and that poor communication is the root of most problems).

Not that I always practice what I preach — I’m sure I don’t. But I’ve been through a lot of holidays over the decades. And as our family expanded and shrank and expanded again, encompassing in-laws, “steps,” and a slew of significant (and insignificant) others, I have learned a thing or two about how to roll with the holiday punches.

So if you’re one of the millions traveling home for the holidays, here is my guide to surviving a dysfunctional family Christmas. (Or any other holiday or gathering.)

1. Assume Innocence. Not Every Question is a Criticism

Try not to ascribe hidden motives to every statement. You may think when your Dad asks, “So how’s grad school?” he actually means, “When are you going to listen to me and finally quit wasting your time and money on a useless degree in comparative French literature?”

But it’s quite possible that’s not a loaded question at all. Perhaps he truly wants to know how things are going. And even if it’s not an innocent questiongrit your teeth and answer it like it is, with a smile and a resolve not to engage.

On the other hand sometimes you have to …

2. Answer the Question Behind the Question

Most people never really understand what other people do for a living. It’s just hard to put ourselves in someone else’s world — especially when we only see that person once a year.

I can relate. Nobody really understands what PR is. (They usually mistake it for advertising.) And acting or public speaking? People’s impressions are shaped entirely by what they see on TV and in the movies.

So when your Aunt Bea asks you what sounds like a really dumb question about your work, keep in mind that all she really wants is to understand a little about what you do and to know that you’re all right.  So tell her about a cool project you’re involved in or an award you received or some other thing that excites you.

3. Have a Story Prepared

I’ve always hated small talk — vague questions like “What’s new?” and “What’s up?” I’d much rather talk about something very specific, like how I go about preparing for a speech or why cats are so much better than dogs.

But people don’t ask those kinds of questions because, again, they don’t really understand what we do day-to-day. So they go with something simple and vague like “How are things?”

If you’re like me and feel stumped when you’re put on the spot, take a few moments while you’re on the plane or in the car to look back on your year. Then prepare something short and simple to talk about.

Maybe you moved into a new apartment or got a promotion or ran a half-marathon. Pick one thing (not a laundry list of things), and focus on that.

4. Ask Other People Questions

Maybe you had a tough year — a breakup, a job loss, a health issue — and you just don’t want to talk about it. That’s fine. (Though I hope you’re talking to someone about it.)

A simple way to deflect unwanted attention when the focus is on you is to turn it around and ask other people questions. Most people, when given the chance, will be all-too-happy to tell you what’s going on in their lives.

5. Try Not to Take Criticism Personally

No kids? No girlfriend? No job? Yes, you can expect nagging questions and comments along the lines of:

“When are you going to give us a grandchild?”

“Don’t you ever want to get married?”

“Your problem is you’re too picky!”

This may or may not be the time to discuss intricate details of your infertility issues or to come out of the closet or declare your intention to move back home. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

But as far as motives go, understand that people just like to criticize. It’s what they (we?) do. And keep in mind that if you had kids they’d be questioning your parenting skills and if you were in a relationship they’d ask whatever happened to that nice girl Janice they liked so much and if you had a job they’d still be urging you to get a real estate license or a law degree or something.

So take a deep breath, change the subject and pour another glass of wine.

6. Understand That You’re a Guest Now

Sometimes the signs are very clear. Your bedroom has been converted to an office, exercise studio or sewing room, and you’re stuck on a flimsy futon wedged next to a treadmill.

Sometimes it’s more subtle. You can’t find the coffee filters in the remodeled kitchen or figure out how to turn the heat down on the programmable thermostat.

Either way, there comes a point in every adult child’s life where you realize that this is no longer “your” home and you’re just a guest here. Okay, maybe not “just” — surely you’re a special guest.

But the rules for guests are a little different. Coming and going as you please, expecting people to hold it down while you sleep in ’til noon or criticizing the way things are done are probably not going to fly anymore.

On the other hand …

7. This Isn’t a Hotel

You may be expected to pitch in with the laundry or the dishes. You might want to replace all those beers you’ve been drinking. And you probably shouldn’t use that treadmill to hang all your dirty underwear on.

8. Accept That Things Change

If yours is a modern family, it’s likely that over the years spouses and significant others, children and step-siblings, in-laws and sometimes outlaws will be added and subtracted from the family equation.

Marriages, breakups, competing obligations, illness and death will change the makeup of your celebration and shift the center of gravity. New traditions will be created and old ones cast aside.

Nobody likes change — especially those involving such treasured moments in our lives. But it’s a fact of life, obviously. And mourning the ghosts of Christmas past prevents us from enjoying and building on the new traditions that are being created as we speak.

9. Take a Break

Feeling stressed out? Take a break. Go to your room (or your “room”) and read for a bit. Call a friend. Volunteer to go to the store when supplies are low and take a few extra laps around the block on your way back.

And if you flew in to town, consider renting a car if you can afford it. There are few things worse than feeling trapped and having to rely on others for your every move.

10. Ask for Stories, Take Pictures

Look around the table. Some of these people may not be here next year. Or they may not be here in the way you expected. Talk to your parents (and, if you’re so lucky, grandparents). Ask them about their lives. Record their stories.

I promise there will come a time when you’ll wish you knew more about them, but the opportunity to learn will be lost.

And get pictures. My father suffered a long illness before he died and I regret how few pictures I have of us together when we were both adults and healthy.

Your Family’s Mileage May Vary

Of course, dysfunction is a broad term. One family’s dysfunction is another’s minor annoyance. And still another’s might encompass serious turmoil and abuse, for which mere communication may not be a solution.

But whatever you’re facing after going over the hills and through the woods, I hope you’re able to manage it with empathy, grace and good cheer. And failing that, with the remedy of your choice — whether it’s a good book, a hard workout or a tall drink.

And for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope you have a chance to relax and take a breath as much of the world slows down.

Be safe!

(Photo Credit: tchaikovskygirl via Compfight cc)

2 thoughts on “10 Steps for Surviving a Dysfunctional Family Christmas

  1. For 59 years my immediate family spent Christmas together mom, dad, sister, her husband, me, my husband and eventually five children between. Christmas was a sacred time for our family that one day a year of happiness and laughter would bond us more closely. We had a couple of rules that nine of us needed to be reminded: be gracious with the gifts your received. Present opening is NOT the time to complain about it. The most important of all, was never complain that your children did not receive the same priced gifts as your sisters’s kids. Around Christmas of 2005 is when I start to witness the beginning of dysfunction.

    1. Wow, Sarah — 59 years! That’s amazing, and I love those rules. Now that I have kids we are working on their manners, and gratitude is key. Merry Christmas!

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