How to make holiday plans with dysfunctional family.

The holidays are coming soon.  For me that always means deciding how and when I will spend time with family.  If you happen to have someone in your family that likes to wreak emotional havoc, it’s not so easy.  Do you have a family member that pushes your buttons, that feeds off of drama, or manipulates to get what they want leaving you feeling exhausted, shamed, guilty, or just plain wrecked?  

Do you decide to make alternate plans or do you decide there’s a good enough reason to engage with this person over the holidays?

Keep this in mind (because it really is the key to emotional health and expert relationship skills): You are not responsible for others’ feelings and actions; you are responsible for your own feelings and actions.

Alternate plans?

It may be that you decide to not make plans with them for the holidays.  That decision carries a lot of potential guilt.  Many parent child relationships are full of expectations and obligations under the guise of “respecting your elders”.  A relationship full of obligation is based on power and control, not love and respect.  A relationship that is truly based in love recognizes that the other person’s actions are voluntary.  You cannot force someone to love you.  If you want to have a strong relationship, it must be built on love and respect.  That means I respect your choice even if I don’t like it.  We’ve all heard the phrase, if you love them, let them go.  It’s true, once you try and control love, you begin to strangle it.

So you’ll have to ask yourself – are you making the right choice if you make other plans?  It’s really about your values and boundaries.  If you decide to go eat Chinese food with your husband and child instead of go to your mother’s smoke-filled house and endure a lecture about what a horrible person you are, I’d say you have decided that you value your health and don’t tolerate emotional abuse.  If you decide to spend the holidays with your girlfriend instead of with your family, it sounds like you value the relationship with your girlfriend more than your family.  That probably hurts.  But, guilting you into spending time with your family doesn’t actually make you value or love them any more than you already do.  It just breeds resentment and drives a wedge into the relationship.  If a parent is using guilt and manipulation to get you to show up in the way they want you to, they are using you to meet their needs and/or they are lying to themselves about the reality of your relationship with them.  A healthy parent child relationship does not rely on the child to meet their emotional needs.  

Bite the bullet?

If you’ve decided to spend some time with someone who is emotionally dysfunctional or abusive, that means there’s a big enough reason to do so and you’ll have to take responsibility for your feelings, actions, and reactions.  If that’s the case, here’s your game plan:

  • Examine your expectations & Set your intentions – What have you expected from your family in the past?  Really decide if your expectations are realistic.  Are you wanting them to be different than they are?  Accept where they are so that you can stop being triggered by their actions.  You can’t control them, you can only control you.  When you set your intentions before going into a situation, you have the upper hand, you’re prepared, you’re acting, not REACTING.  This gives you power.   What is a realistic and achievable goal?  Do you just want to not get rattled?  Do you want to keep it civil?  Do you want to spend time with family and not let that one person get in the way?  Decide what it is you want this interaction to be like. 
  • Create a plan of action – Decide what you will and won’t do.  You won’t talk about politics, or you won’t discuss your relationship with your husband, or whatever it is you decide is off limits, appropriate or inappropriate.
  • Consider the environment – The environment can make a big difference in how things play out.  If it’s a family dinner, it may be better that it’s at their house, that way you can leave when you need to.  If you’re just trying to have a short visit, you can plan to go do something together so that there’s not space for conversations to go south.  You could watch a play together, or go to a movie, or go to some other holiday themed event.  
  • Have an escape plan – Make sure no one blocks in your car.  You could have another event scheduled that puts a deadline on your visit.  You can have a friend call at a pre-determined time to give you an out if you need it.  Just don’t get yourself into a situation that you can’t get out of.
  • Enlist support – You can invite someone you know they’ll behave in front of, talk over potential problems with a friend to make sure you’ve covered all the scenarios, or just plan a dinner with your friends the next day to recharge your energy.
  • Decide how you will react when things go wrong – Just have a plan in place for what you will do when that happens.  It can be as simple as steering the conversation around potential traps.  If they are digging for some kind of drama to leverage, don’t take the bait.  Keep the conversation on neutral topics.  If they start doing that thing you decided you won’t tolerate, engage your escape plan.


Cheers to planning peaceful gatherings with family!