I love the holidays.It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the time for cocoa, singing carols, sledding, and spreading Christmas cheer for the world to hear. It’s also the time of year when you have to spend time with (and survive) your dysfunctional family without breaking into hives.
As a child of a dysfunctional family, I know this feeling all too well. Holidays are holly, jolly, and often wind up being my very own personal brand of hell. Whether it’s your nuclear family that’s exploding with tension, or your extended family dropping in and raining on your otherwise lovely parade of holiday cheer, it’s important to prepare yourself. Having a worst case scenario survival plan on how to survive your dysfunctional family is key. Because family can make your holidays, or break your them.
The good news is, you’re not alone. The holidays can be tough on those of us with less than perfect families (what even is a “perfect family” these days anyway?) — but by preparing yourself, you might just find yourself excited for this holiday season. Or at the very least, with a sliver more sanity than you had last year.
1. Plan Ahead
Whatever you do, don't go blindly into the holiday season. Make a few phone calls. Figure out who exactly will be in attendance — and who might be in attendance. Discuss sleeping arrangements, arrival times, and what you should bring. Being a good guest is paramount during the holidays, especially if your family tends to err on the side of stressful.
If you haven't seen certain people in a while, do a little Facebook reconnaissance work and see what they've been up to. Make a few notes to topics to avoid, and a few happy notes to bring up. If you're going to have to tough it out with these people, you want to be as prepared as possible.
2. Lower Your Expectations
For years I would look back on holidays with rose-colored glasses, trying to make it seem like the glorious tale of love and laughter I always wanted it to be. Then, year after year, I would wind up disappointed. Taking the expectations out of the season will help you prepare yourself for the worst case scenario.
Things to take out of your pile of expectations: everyone getting along, things going smoothly, a conversation where nobody mentions Donald Trump (or politics at all for that matter), getting gifts you'll actually use, getting gifts at all, caroling around the fireplace, any sense of tradition whatsoever. OK, maybe this list is a little drastic, but it's best to set the bar low.
3. Have A Backup Plan
It's always a good idea to have a backup plan. Whether you're visiting people or people are visiting you, having a plan in case things fall through will put you at ease. Discard your stress about unreliable family members showing up unannounced, or about driving 16 hours in sleet and hail only to spend a weekend in misery. Create a solid backup plan, and relish the fact that you have options.
4. Explore Alternate Options
I have a brother who avoids the holiday season altogether. For Thanksgiving, he and his wife went to Rio de Janeiro instead of visiting home. It works for them. Holidays are supposed to be about family. But if you know that it's going to cause you more stress than it's worth, consider alternate holiday plans. Plan a trip, volunteer at a shelter, spend it with friends.
Holidays should be a joyous occasion, not material for therapy for years to come. Sometimes, that means taking a year off from the family festivities.
5. Take The High Road
This includes changing the subject before a fight breaks out, suggesting a group activity that will keep everyone busy, offering to help in the kitchen, and sitting at the kids table even though you're 32. If you practice your reactions to the ludicrous scenarios you're dreading in your head, you're more apt to be able to take them on when they actually happen.
6. Build A Support System
Having a friend you can step outside to call, or even text, can make a world of difference. A venting partner or someone who knows your pain can offer you a safe haven, if only for a few minutes.
7. Bring Something To Do
When in doubt, bring something to keep yourself busy. Although you might get lambasted for being on your phone for the entire weekend, other things like reading, knitting, sewing, coloring, writing, or playing an instrument are completely acceptable to bring along and use as a coping mechanism while everyone goes to battle after dinner.
8. Avoid Poor Coping Mechanisms
I know it's hard to handle a series of overly personal questions. But answering these questions with grace is hard enough before your third glass of merlot, let alone after. Monitor your intake and try to avoid substance abuse as a coping mechanism. The only thing worse than having to deal with your dysfunctional family at the holidays is having to deal with your dysfunctional family while hungover at the holidays.
9. Have An Exit Strategy
Be sure to introduce the exit strategy as a possibility early on in the game. Telling your grandmother that you're volunteering at the soup kitchen after dinner goes over much better if you're not telling her as you're skedaddling out the door. Friends you haven't seen in ages, cousins celebrating a few miles away, and taking the dog for a nice long walk are also great excuses for finding your peace of mind.