Christmas: A time of family dysfunction

Merry ChristmasMerry Christmas

How to survive with your sanity after the holidays with your family.

Christmas Bow

Christmas Bow

I have often thought about a vacation in sub-Sahara Africa during the holiday season to avoid my family.  I guess I could play possum or just stop answering the door and phone.  I love my family, but ten minutes with them and I feel like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation.  He needed help to make the perfect Christmas for his family and the family was more interested in relaxing than helping.  For me, my Christmases were a mixed bag.  My family is divorced and I usually spent my Christmas day traveling between family locations when I really just wanted to play with my presents.  I have always wanted my son to have better and so now, we spend our Christmases at home and do not travel to my extended family or my in-laws.  Thanksgiving is for the extended family and Christmas is for my wife, son, and I.  

We are originally from West Virginia.  On the day after Thanksgiving, we went to get the perfect tree for Christmas.  I can remember buying from a tree lot at times, but I also remember going into the woods to get a tree.  There is nothing like looking for the finest tree as a family.  Trotting up and down the snowy hills looking at trees after trees until you find one that is symmetrical and perfect to put in your living room.  Usually, after 3-4 dozen, we finally gave up and settled for the next three we found.  Up to age 12 or thereabouts, I cannot remember anything that wasn’t just perfect. We bagged it and tagged it like a proud hunter who shot a 12 point deer and we pulled it out of the woods.  

There is no doubt why Christmas is so stressful.  You have gifts to buy and wrap, cookies to bake, parties to attend, work to complete, and we overspend so we also have bills to pay.  If these stresses are not enough, we have the burden of trying to live up to the perfection of Christmases past and the perceptions of how great Christmas was when we were children.  On top of all these burdens, you have our family to visit with, and often this visit is not as pleasant as could be year to year.  Family relationships are not simple, and often the clashing of personalities leads to you regressing to your childhood.  We sing about peace on Earth but many of us would settle for harmony and peace in our living rooms.      

The definition of insanity is to do them the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome.  Christmas is really no different.  We invited out our large number of our family into our homes and expect a different outcome.  Imagine this scene: you and twenty of your family members are in your living room.  You have decided to place many of the most toxic family members in a small space and you expect a perfect Christmas without a homicidal situation.  This is the perfect example of unrealistic expectations.  

Burdens to survive:

  1. Christmas by the numbers Infographic

    Christmas by the Numbers Infographic

    Toxic relatives kill our family fun. We all have that relative that is just plain mean and difficult.  They either make themselves feel better by diminishing what everyone else has done.  They lob past aggressive insults and moan about everything you recommend.  It is hard to be in the same room with these folks, and we all have the urge to punch them in the nose.  Don’t let them create angst that ends in you sitting in the corner of the room rocking and pray for strength.  Don’t sink to this level!  

  2. Unhappy moments from our past cause regression.  Be the responsible one.  I know you have had a time when you drop to their level and regress to moments in your childhood.  There are relatives that just plain know what buttons to hit to cause you to timewarp back and dwell on your prior weaknesses.  You need to have the emotional intelligence to know when you are at risk of response and self-regulate your emotions and responses.  Don’t give them the power over you and don’t dwell on the past.  You are better than this.  
  3. Don’t play the change game.  A lot of our relatives like to discuss what has changed and what has not changed in the years since you last saw them.  I am not telling you to ignore them, but don’t get in the tit for tat game that will end in you feeling inadequate.  Tell them how your family is doing and be proud of them.  If they one-up you, just tell them “you must be proud of them”.    
  4. Don’t be defensive.  You have obligations and responsibilities and can’t afford to let others reduce your ability to complete them.  Some of our relatives are trying to get under our skin.  Like a bully, they enjoy seeing you react and your responses make them feel better about their inadequacies.  Don’t give them the pleasure of hearing your response.  The worst thing you can do is let the stress reduce your sleep, make you eat more, or increase your alcohol intake.  Be the adult and don’t add to the dysfunction.  
  5.  Substance and domestic abuse. There are few in every family. I lumped these two together because they are both difficult to deal with. It does not matter whether you have an uncle who strikes your aunt or you have a cousin who gets so drunk that he hits on your wife, the implications are the same. Both are destructive to good family dynamics and reduce the stress and “perfection” of your healthy holidays.   
  6. Avoid the Triangle of hell.  Your mother is upset that your brother’s wife is pressuring him to move to California.  This is a trap so avoid responding. 

How to survive Christmas and reduce homicidal ideation during the holidays: 

  1. Another Christmas Infographics

    Another Christmas Infographics

    Take the holiday bull by the horns and reduce your stress.  Don’t overspend and have realistic expectations over the holidays.  

  2. Have a plan.  Plan out the meal and entertainment.  Don’t leave a moment for a variance.  If you think about each family member and give them tasks, you will keep them busy and avoid altercations as the night progresses.  You might even reduce the alcohol intake of your crazy uncle and prevent the potential for him breaking something, punching your brother, or removing his clothes and streaking through the neighborhood.  The kids don’t need to see that.  
  3. Delegate duties.  This task is usually found in a business or military but let use it at home.  As I said above, given the duties to keep them busy.  It will slow alcohol intake and avoid visits from the police.  
  4. Change your expectations.  It will not be a disaster if your Christmas dinner is not perfect.  If you change plans or if you do light the menorah at the perfect time, life will not end.  I recommend that you look at your plans and challenge your assumptions about the outcome of the evening and change it up.  There is no such thing at perfect and most fo your family will enjoy the change.  
  5. If you expect a miracle or perfection, you will be disappointed.  If your family has always had Christmases full of conflict, and now you expect a miracle just because you are hosting, you will be disappointed.  Focus on reality, and you will be less disappointed.  
  6. Reduce your holiday stress by reducing time to boot on the ground.  You have decided to visit your in-laws. Do the smart thing, instead of spending a week traveling between the families, spend 2 to 3 days visiting and use the remaining time to relax. Get a hotel instead of staying in a family home. The money saved is not worth the stress inflicted.
  7. Enjoy the time you have. Relish the good times and don’t focus on the bad times. Some of the relatives may not be there next year. This suggestion is not a guilt trip, but rather this is a reality.  
  8.  Be realistic.  For many years, we have developed unrealistic expectations. We have idealized the perception of what a perfect family and perfect holidays can be. This view is not a healthy view of the world. There is no perfect.
  9. Just say no.  This statement is more than a 1980’s “no drugs” mantra.  Any other response sets you up for a trap.  Your physical and mental safety should come first.  Refuse to do anything that will set you up for failure.  You cannot avoid the request, but you can control the response.  When the family makes unrealistic requests, say no.   
  10. Avoid the power play.  You have one aunt who is always late for dinner.  She will always be late.  You cannot change her, but don’t delay dinner.  This situation could be a calamity of biblical proportions.  If you delay dinner for her, the family will become hypoglycemic and mean.  Serve her later and if the food is cold, may she will learn a lesson.
  11. Have an out.  You will have one cousin or brother that will show up expecting to stay for a month.  They might be like cousin Eddy in Christmas vacation and arrive in a Winnebago or expect you to put them up in the family home.  Have a family plan for a way out.  Plan for a vacation or trip to watch a bowl game or visit the beach.  A concerted plan may prevent you from being trapped into being the family’s version of the Holiday Inn.
  12. Don’t drink too much.   Alcohol is a coping mechanism.  Too much alcohol is a bad thing. I would recommend that you put a walk on the liquor cabinet. Alcohol loosens inhibitions, and people say the darndest things when they are under the effects of alcohol.  A shot glass is like the magnifying glass that makes us see and say some of the most ridiculous statements.  Alcohol will ensure that the problems in the distant past more visible and powerful than they were ten years ago. 
Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

The bottom line: Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year, and we chose this time to invite masses of the most difficult family members into our homes.  As we head toward Christmas and the sheer madness that will invade our homes, remember, perfection is a utopian concept out of the 1960s and Star Trek.  It is an impossibility and we will never approach it in reality.  Focus on reality and you will have realistic expectations and put less stress on your family and yourself.  Although faith, family, and a friend are important during the holidays, I recommend that you consider exercise, nutrition, and sleep to be more important.  


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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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