Coping with Challenging Family Interactions at the Holidays

Coping with Challenging Family Interactions at the Holidays

The holidays can be a special and memorable time of year for many, filled with laughter, gift-giving, words of affirmation and connection. But it can also be filled with tension, anxiety, and disappointment for those struggling with challenging relationships with family members. Many people have strained family relationships, or possibly even unresolved traumas from childhood that make family interactions difficult. This can bring about triggers when interacting with these family members, and with triggers come efforts (either consciously or unconsciously) to cope with these triggers. 

Some examples of unhealthy coping include defensive arguments, alcohol or other substance use, binge eating or restriction. These are coping skills that might numb us in the moment, but cause long term suffering or bring us further from a place of peace and happiness. We all have our ways of coping with stress, and sometimes we are aware of these coping skills, but sometimes we are not. Coping is how we deal with challenging or difficult situations in our life. Sometimes the anticipatory anxiety around family gatherings can be so great, that we are engaging in coping behaviors for weeks leading up to a family gathering.

It is important to become aware of the coping mechanisms that you use in the face of family conflict before you are faced with that family conflict. You cannot reduce the maladaptive, or unhealthy, coping mechanism until you know what it is. And you cannot take away one coping skill without replacing it with another one, so it is important to replace the maladaptive coping mechanism with a coping mechanism that meets your underlying needs associated with the trigger.

Thinking about patterns of behavior in family members, what is expected of your next family gathering? Is it an uncle who always brings up politics? An aunt who always comments on your appearance or the food on your plate? A cousin who perpetrated abuse upon you as a child? Or a sibling who instigates an argument about even the most arbitrary topics? Regardless of what the triggering statement might be, it is important to explore the underlying need you have associated with the trigger. Perhaps you need to feel heard, to feel safe, to feel respected, to feel autonomous, to feel loved. Maybe it is to feel numb to the emotional pain you experience. Every person has needs, and when these needs are not met, we feel the need to use coping mechanisms to meet those underlying needs. 

When you consider the need(s) you have in the moment of the trigger, it is important to match the coping mechanism to your need. Here are some ideas for healthy coping to deal with triggers around the holidays:

  • Before the event, journal about your thoughts and feelings about the family gathering. Process your feelings about the person you are anxious about interacting with. Write about situations where you felt triggered in the past and how you dealt with it. Write about the triggers you may face at this event and write about the ways you might be able to cope with it in the moment. 
  • Write a no-send letter to that person (and do not send it – you can be more unfiltered in your writing if you know that no one else will read it). Meditate on your unresolved feelings towards that person after writing the letter, and consider burning the letter safely in a fireplace, or dissolving it into a bowl of water, or ripping it into tiny pieces.
  • Enlist a support system for yourself for this gathering before it happens. Perhaps it is a family member who will be at the event that you feel safe sharing your feelings with. If there is no one at this event who you feel comfortable speaking to about this, perhaps enlist a friend that you can call or text if you need to during the time of the gathering to feel supported if something happens. 
  • Consider setting healthy boundaries at the time of the trigger if it is safe for you to do so. This can be as simple as saying “I would rather not talk about this subject,” or “Please do not comment on ____,” or changing the subject entirely.
  • Write positive affirmations or statements to yourself before the event, and put them in a place you can access them when you need to, such as your pocket, your wallet, your phone case, or in your car. Match this affirmation with the need you have associated with the trigger, such as “I am enough,” “I can do hard things,” “I release all expectations placed upon me,” “I can stay calm in the face of adversity.” 
  • Excuse yourself for a step outside to take a few deep breaths or take a short walk around your block to clear your thoughts before returning to the conversation. When taking deep breaths, breathe in from your nose or your mouth to the center of your body, and try to count your inhale breath and your exhale breath. Try to make each breath longer with every inhale and exhale. 
  • Set up a support network for yourself after the family gathering. Maybe this includes calling a friend on your drive home (hands free, if you are the one driving), journaling about your feelings when you get home, or engaging in a healthy form of escape such as reading, gaming or watching a movie/show to take your mind off of things.

Alejandra Rose, LMFT