7 Tips for Surviving Your Dysfunctional Family Gatherings


Family dysfunction can make you dread the holiday season. Family members continuously affect each other and respond to obstacles in either helpful or disruptive ways. Our 7 tips can help you lean into a happier holiday and create new patterns with your own kids.

Updated 10/2/2021

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I need a little help from you to kick off this article. Before you read any further, think about all the groups you belong to…a work team, church group, friends, couple friends, groups you lead or coach, etc. When you start listing them, you’re probably part of more groups than you realize. Don’t forget to include your family!

Which of those groups do you love? Which ones are challenging for you? Which group allows you to be the most real version of yourself?

Belonging Matters

I love being part of groups! Most of us do, because it means something to belong. Not just fit in. Really belong. Brené Brown talks about belonging in the 4th most popular TED Talk of all time–it has over 37,000,000 views–and she wrote about it in a book I love.

Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown

But inevitably change occurs in the group and it throws everything out of whack. Science tells us that human beings love consistency, so it only makes sense that change is uncomfortable and difficult.

Over the last few years at the university where I teach, quite a bit has changed in my group of work friends-and this doesn’t even touch on the impact of COVID. We’ve had so many new beginnings! added some coworkers and said goodbye to others, become new moms and official empty nesters, celebrated births and weddings, entered new stages of parenting, dealt with challenges of being the sandwich generation, leaned on each other through unexpected illnesses and deaths, adjusted to different teaching schedules, started businesses and nonprofits, and more.

I know I’m incredibly fortunate to have this group of women in my life, especially because we’ve been able to navigate these changes with relatively little disruption in how we interact with each other.

Work friends

My Ohio State work family. How did Mary and I get so lucky?

When Families Change

This response to change is in sharp contrast to how another group tends to respond to change: our families.  A family is our original group, the foundation of who we are. I am so fascinated by how family members communicate and interact with each other that I studied it in my master’s program at Ohio State. When I learned about the systems perspective and family systems theory, it was like missing puzzle pieces suddenly fell into place and I could see the whole picture.

family systems theory

Here’s what I learned:

A family is a system, a group of individuals who interact with each other and their outside environment as they adjust to change and attempt to maintain balance.

  • Communication is the link between all members of the family system.
  • Family members are interdependent. They continuously affect each other.
  • A family responds to obstacles in a helpful or disruptive way, which results in either positive or negative synergy.
  • When something happens in the family system, it is caused by numerous complex things, not a single, simple thing.

(This is just a snapshot of the whole family system theory. You can read more about Dr. Bowen’s work at The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.)

Quick flashback to middle school and high school: my world had been turned completely upside down. I was angry, confused and felt very isolated. I was mean to other people and inconsiderate of the feelings of my extended family. It was primarily in response to events caused by one toxic family member that shifted our extended family system in a profoundly negative direction.

Now skip ahead to college and marriage shortly after: I was discovering my identity outside of my family, becoming more independent, and starting my career. I’m pretty self-reflective and I’ve taken advantage of counseling for years, so by the time I finished my master’s degree and we had kids in our early 30s, I had a much better handle on who I was and who I wanted to be.

When Families are Dysfunctional

But when my extended family got together for family events over the holidays, I reverted back to that angry, judgmental teenager. It took me by surprise every.single.time. I would leave those holiday gatherings wondering what in the world had just happened. Where did that dysfunctional behavior come from? Who was that person?? It certainly wasn’t me. Not the me who had grown up and moved away and learned to be resilient and kind. But it was who everyone else in my family expected and knew me to be. Most of them weren’t part of my growth and so they only knew the me from high school, and that’s who I became when I was around them. It was easier to fall back into that familiar family system than to disrupt it.

Does this sound familiar to you? Maybe you’re the only one in your family who went to college or moved out of state and it’s hard or it just feels different to be back at home. Or you might be the one who stayed close to home and when your other relatives come back for the holiday season, it’s uncomfortable to figure out where everyone fits. Maybe you’re welcoming an adult child’s spouse into the family or you’re having a hard time with your own teenagers. Or perhaps this is the first holiday without a loved one and everything just feels off. So often, when we don’t acknowledge changes and adapt accordingly–and communicate about it!–we just go back to what we know. It’s easier. It requires less energy.

How to Survive the Dysfunction During the Holidays

But here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to be that way! Here are 7 tips to survive dysfunctional family gatherings:

1. Set realistic expectations.

You’ve heard about setting SMART goals, right? They need to be attainable (more here from human resources at MIT). Apply the same thinking to your family gathering and get control of your own thoughts. Rein in that Hallmark movie fantasy. Or stop that downward spiral about toxic behavior in its tracks. You already know what’s reasonable to expect. When you adjust your mindset to something that’s realistic, you’re already ahead of the game.

2. Focus on gratitude.

Identify one positive thing or a reason to be thankful for each member of your family. I know you may be tempted to roll your eyes and skip past this one, but I hope you stick with me for a minute. If you’ve been around this blog for long, you know gratitude is a common theme.

The classes I teach require working in group settings and my students inevitably dread it. So I often use gratitude to help them. When we intentionally focus on the good in someone else, on the value of their contribution, we interact more positively. Even the person in my life who turned everything upside down has taught me some important lessons.

Behavioral science tells us that gratitude can also improve our mental health. And it’s a lot easier to deal with unhealthy family dynamics with more positive mental health.

gratitude wall chalkboard paper

I’ve mentioned my gratitude wall a few times. It’s a large wall right in the middle of my house, and I change the focus every few months. I bought peel and stick chalkboard paper so I could use chalk markers and I love it!  (This one was based on a book by Shauna Niequist. Just realized the forward was written by Brené Brown!) 

We also created a printable with 24 Christmas lunchbox note cards with tweens and teens in mind, and many of them focus on gratitude. Grab the instant download for $4.99, print them at home, cut them out and stick them in lunches, books your kids are reading or coat pockets.

Christmas Lunchbox Note Cards

3. Differentiate yourself.

Remind yourself that you are part of your family, but you don’t have to be defined by them. You belong to many groups and your identity is not solely defined by any single relationship. You don’t have to fall back into old patterns if you want a different experience. What makes you different from the rest of your family? How have you grown or changed in ways that you feel good about? The answers to these questions will help you see yourself separately rather than wrapped up with everyone else.

4. Plan ahead.

If you’re asked an uncomfortable question, how will you respond? If conversation turns to a controversial topic, what will you say? If you start to feel anxious or angry or inadequate, what will you do? Maybe you need some canned answers, or maybe you need an exit strategy. Sometimes, you just need to take deep breaths and disengage.

Oh, that is so hard for me to do! But most of the time, if I refuse to bite, everybody’s happier and definitely calmer. I wish I could explain how many times in my life I’ve had essentially the same conversation or argument with one family member. It’s ridiculous. Sometimes I joke that I could save us time and effort just by recording it and replaying it every time we get together. That’s laced with sarcasm of course, but honestly it just wears me out. Refusing to play along was the best decision I ever made.

5. Reflect.

When it’s finally over and you pull out of the driveway or close the front door after everyone leaves, it’s a good time to rest. You made it! I really believe in the power of reflection–I require it of my students and it’s one of the 5 steps in our service-learning boxes. Think through what went well and what didn’t go as planned. What can you do at your next family function to make it more bearable…maybe even enjoyable?

6. Find a way to laugh.

I always try to find humor in even the worst experiences–sharing it with a spouse or close friend can be cathartic. Sometimes this means I laugh at inappropriate times (I’ve got some great stories from my brother’s wedding and my husband’s grandmother’s funeral), but I know God created laughter–just listen to a child’s belly laugh! Ann Voskamp calls laughter “oxegynated grace.”

Not long ago, my husband and I had a horrific day with the family member I’ve mentioned. This is not an exaggeration. I felt like I was drowning and could never quite get to the surface for a full breath of air. At the end of the day in the middle of a hospital lobby, I hugged my husband and told him that I never would have survived without him beside me. His response? He hugged me tight and said, “I know babe, I know…I love you and wouldn’t have wanted you to do this alone…but this was SO much worse than I thought it was going to be.” Oh, it felt so good to laugh. Oxygenated grace right there.

sorry i'm late shirt Sorry I'm late shirt

I couldn’t help but laugh at these shirts. Lots of colors to choose from, but I thought these were pretty festive.

7. Watch a movie.

I saved the best for last. Find a funny holiday movie about family dysfunction and feel better about your own mess. Here are some great choices–what favorites did I miss?

christmas movies

Better Communication Can Stop the Family Dysfunction

Now that we’ve talked about surviving a dysfunctional family holiday, I want to close out this post with hope for the future. I recently read a quote from Terry Real that stopped me cold.

Terry Real quote about dysfunctional families

Wow. I am trying to be that person, along with my husband and brother and sister-in-law. I’m done with unhealthy relationships. And there are times when I feel the heat from the flames and I’m not sure I have what it takes. Because change is hard. Disrupting a family system is incredibly difficult. But the last part of his quote is why I keep searching for water to fill my bucket and douse the flames: PEACE.

Earlier in this blog, I talked about the importance of communication in a family system. Family systems that are positive use healthy communication as the link between all members of your family. At some point–if they’re not already–my boys will be so tired of hearing the word “healthy” when I talk about communication and relationships. I’m sure plenty of eye rolls are in my future, but I’m fighting for peace, so I’ll deal with it.

Here’s what I’m trying to do differently in my family–because it’s the only way things will get better. Believe me, I fail regularly and I often question if I’m making progress. But I know how these communication strategies have improved my marriage, family relationships and friendships, so we’ll keep working on them!

1. Say what we mean and mean what we say. Ask for clarification and apologize when what we communicated isn’t what we meant. Do better the next time.

Sometimes my younger son gets really frustrated with me if I don’t understand what he’s trying to communicate. My questions–attempts to clarify and understand–irritate him and he just wants the conversation to be over. I sometimes get discouraged when the next time isn’t better…until it is. Repetition is key.

2. Talk about issues after we’ve had time to calm down. In the heat of an argument, nobody is thinking straight. We take some time, then find a peaceful resolution that’s honest, reasonable and fair.

Parenting makes my anger flare up more than anything else. My students describe me as endlessly patient and helpful, but that definitely doesn’t always carry over to my own kids. I’ve had those out of body experiences in the midst of an argument with my sons…you know the ones…when I’m fully aware that I need to shut my mouth and walk away but I keep talking.

We’ve had so many fruitful conversations when we give each other space to calm down. Both of my boys regularly come to me after an argument to apologize for how they handled something. It’s almost always unprompted, and I’m encouraged by their ability to recognize their part in conflict. I do plenty of apologizing too. When my husband and I argue or get frustrated with each other and the boys are aware of it, we try to remember to apologize for lost tempers within earshot of the boys.

3. Dig to the heart of the matter rather than talking about things on the surface. This is almost always uncomfortable, but I also know it’s always worth it.

I have a strong relationship with my brother and sister-in-law, only because we’ve been willing to have really hard conversations over the years. It’s the healthy way to handle conflict, but it’s not easy to do. We love each other and value our relationship enough to say when we’re upset or hurt. When we understand what’s really at the root of a problem, we can make progress and grow. My kids won’t always tell us what’s really going on, but establishing a pattern of willingness to discuss difficult things will make some conversations more likely to happen in the future.

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