Navigating Family Dynamics for Happier Holidays

The holidays have a way of bringing out the kid in all of us. We long to innocently enjoy all the wonder (blissfully unaware of the work involved!). We treat ourselves to hot chocolate with a candy cane stirrer because, after all, it’s the holidays. The first time we turn on the tree lights, we remember our very first tree and clap our hands with the same joy and excitement.

Innocent childhood delights adding a special flavor to our adult celebrations. No harm in that, right? Right!

But what if your holiday-inspired temporary reversion to childhood isn’t quite so harmless? What if you get together with your family and find yourself acting like the bossy older sister, a role you thought you’d outgrown a long time ago?

Or what if a step through Granny’s door takes you instantly from competent, capable mother to insecure daughter desperately seeking Mom’s approval? Or what if you find yourself resentful when everyone acts so surprised that you, the baby of the family, actually pulled off hosting the family get together this year?

Take a breath and know this: You are not alone. The holidays have a way of making many of us feel like we just fell down Alice’s rabbit hole and ended up back in our childhood.

There are reasons you’re feeling the way you are. Maybe it’s because your family is still thinking about, telling, and reacting to old and out-of-date stories about you. The only thing you ever broke that was valuable was Aunt Nellie’s vase when you were five years old, but that doesn’t stop your sister from sharply barking, “Be careful!” when you move her treasured plate to the other side of the table.

Maybe your parents never fully adjusted to having grown children. So your father still feels the need to remind you to put on your coat if you’re going outside.

Or maybe when all of you get together, it just feels so much like when you were a child that you start to act like it is an earlier (much earlier!) time in your life. And so does everyone else around you except your husband and children who are looking at you like they don’t recognize you.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing the finger and blaming those around us for our uncomfortable reversion to childhood dynamics. If only she wouldn’t say this or he wouldn’t do that or they wouldn’t treat us that way. But here are a few suggestions for how we can take a proactive role and navigate the family togetherness of the holidays while still remaining the capable, competent adults we know ourselves to be (at least most of the time).

1. Let go of any expectation you have that your family will change. They probably won’t, at least not without help. If you want someone to step up and act differently so the dynamics will change, let’s face it. That someone is probably going to have to be you. But that’s okay. You can do it. You are, after all, a capable and competent adult. Be the change you want to see in your family world (and continue to practice letting go of your expectations about that change).

2. Maybe you will decide that your family is just too toxic or abusive. And so you will make the decision to disengage completely. You don’t have to deal with abuse from anyone. If you walk this path, you most likely would benefit from the support and guidance of a therapist. This is a difficult and painful step to navigate.

3. But if you decide to be the bringer of sanity and healthier ways of interacting to the Mad Hatter Tea Party known as your family holiday gathering, be realistic and be prepared. You will need patience, lots of it. You’ll want to do some planning and strategizing and plenty of reflection after the fact.

4. Suggest environments, activities, and timeframes that are more likely to bring out the best in you and your family members. Perhaps you can structure your time spent together so it brings out positive memories of experiences from the past. Or perhaps you want to try something completely new and different that will make it easier for all of you to see each other in a new, updated light. If things disintegrate after 10pm- plan for that and make your exit.

5. Enlist your partner and/or your children to help you stay in your competent, capable adult mode. Or pretend you are in a social situation outside your family and do your best to think, feel, and behave accordingly. For example, pretend you are visiting your best friend’s family and not your own.

6. Bring up topics of conversation that are interesting to all, focus on the present (the past can be a minefield), and are non-controversial. Suggestions include sports, hobbies, funny stories, favorite music, tv shows, or movies. It’s a great idea to have a few of these in your pocket that you’ve thought of ahead of time, but if you bring up something and there’s no interest, don’t take it personally. Just drop it and move on.

7. Sometimes the best coping mechanism of all is a graceful temporary exit – to the bathroom, to the kitchen to clean up, to the other room to make a quick call to a friend you promised to contact. Or maybe you want to go outside for a peek at the stars or volunteer to show Granny how to use that new app or teach the kids how to play the game Santa brought.

8. Don’t forget to bring your sense of humor to the holidays. Encourage your funny cousin to tell his latest jokes or watch Will Farrell in Elf or simply remind yourself to lighten up and not take yourself or your family or the holidays too seriously.

This last suggestion is oh so much easier said (written) than done. But remember that, “This too shall pass.” Tomorrow you’ll wake up in your own bed in your own home and receive one of the best gifts Santa could give you. You’ll remember that you are indeed a capable, competent adult.

Happy holidays!

New Approaches is a small group private practice in Portland, Maine offering workshops, counseling, consultations, and coaching to help clients proactively improve emotional wellness and strengthen their relationships. For more information about our services, check us out on the web at


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