Managing Difficult Family Dynamics This Holiday Season

The holiday season is upon us! The end of the year when we gather with friends and family to catch up on the lives of the people we hold dear. It is a time for big hugs, laughter, and maintaining relationships. Thanksgiving and Christmas provide the opportunity for everyone to spend time together. Love, happiness, joy, and peace surround family affairs this time of year. But what if I feel anxiety, apprehension, and unease because of my family dynamics? Can I distance myself from my family during the holiday season?

family in front of Christmas tree with grandparents in the backgroundEverywhere I look, people are grateful for family. I am grateful for family. My husband and my kids are my world, that goes without saying. But just as friend circles get smaller as we venture into adulthood, my family circle has gotten smaller as well. Family dynamics are varied, complicated, and at times, dysfunctional. As much as I see themes of family love and bonding throughout the holidays, there is also a universe that co-exists where people are not looking forward to spending mandatory time with family. For many people, family gatherings can bring as much joy as getting a cavity filled.

There is no need to subject yourself to tense and anxious situations just for the sake of family. With the family obligations of the holiday season, I developed several guideposts to help me enjoy the holiday season, truly, without dealing with family pressure and toxicity.

Resolve Big Issues

Address the elephant in the room before it enters. Family conflict that arises from an obvious dispute or re-occurring battles should be discussed before the commencement of festivities. Try to come to a resolution, even if it is temporary, before the big gathering. Talking things out could result in different outcomes:

  • Resolution is met, feelings are calmed and you can walk into the celebration worrying more about your runny potato salad than acing your condescending, racist, and opinionated Auntie.
  • Resolution is not quite achieved however, you agreed to keep things cool. With this option, you won’t be blindsided by an unexpected argument. But this won’t save you from the blinding lights of your sister’s over-the-top decor.
  • Resolution is not met. In fact, things may have gotten worse and you may consider sitting out certain holiday functions. Spare your feelings and spare your family from your annual fruitcake contribution.

Don’t Go Out of Your Way

Take the time to think about the true motivation for why you would want to over-extend yourself to spend this time of year with family. If the desire to salvage family ties is strong or you honestly and truly wish to talk to your people, then take that leap. Speaking for myself, the need to “people please” and “do the right thing” was my motivating factor to go all in with family. In the end, it brought me nothing but disappointment. I worried more about impressing others that it took away the joy and peace that this season is all about and left me feeling tired and weary.

Civility Can Go a Long Way

Can you tolerate your family in small doses? Then you may be able to attend family events and be civil. If you can stomach being in the same room with them for a limited time, then go and be merry. Talk about the indecisive Houston weather that is pitting your air conditioner and heater against each other. Keep the conversation light and fun and discuss the insightful posts, guides, and resources published on the Houston Moms website. Eat, drink, talk and then leave before the alcohol kicks in and that crazy uncle starts to talk about controversies. Once someone starts to press your buttons, kindly leave the room or the building altogether.

Just Say No and Don’t Go

It is perfectly fine to not go. In the end, it is your perogative to be missing in action during the holidays, especially if it is for the well-being of your own personal mental health. It can be difficult to say “No” because of family dynamics and to remove yourself from events and gatherings. After my first “No”, it was uncomfortable at first, but as time went by, it felt wonderful with no remorse. From that point, it became easier to put my feelings first and move on with my life without looking back.

I thought I belonged in my family. After all, we share the same DNA. But it is a tough pill to swallow when you realize that you are better off not being around the very family that you grew up with. The deciding factor was the day I realized that my core values do not align with theirs. I wouldn’t hang out with certain family members, even as a friend. After experiencing the difference in feeling loved and respected at home and feeling attacked and blamed at the home I grew up in, it was clear how I wanted to feel. Feeling this difference, it was an easy choice to step back and even sever ties. It wasn’t sad, it was liberating and by setting these boundaries around family dynamics, I set myself free.


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Monica Bell
Monica was born and raised in New Jersey. She has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Penn State University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Cal State Fullerton. She spent several years working, living, and playing in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Virginia, Philadelphia, and back to New Jersey again before settling down in Katy in 2009. She has been married for over 24 years to her soulmate Atiba and together they have three children and a dog that help her stay young, strong, and active. She has been on both sides of the fence as a full-time working Mama and stay-at-home Mama and everything else in between. When she isn’t carting her kids around all over Katy, she works part-time as an engineering consultant. She is a staunch supporter of chocolate and coffee any time of day and binge-watching trashy reality TV shows. Some of her favorite things include cooking up new recipes, writing, Penn State Football, and anything satirical. Monica believes that motherhood continues to lead her through a challenging journey of personal growth, gratitude, and constant chaos.


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