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A Beginner’s Guide to Surviving Dysfunctional Family Holidays

What happened, kid? Did your dad get remarried? Are you spending the holidays with your in-laws this year? Going home with a roommate over break?

Here’s the thing to know about dysfunctional families: truly dysfunctional relationships operate on their own, twisted set of rules that can be hard for an outsider to understand. If your familial liaison tells you something about their family–say, that sweet Grandma May is a racist, or that Uncle Roger will drink too much and bulldoze anyone who even mentions Hilary Clinton–don’t tell them their family seems perfectly nice, take them at face value.

Now, let’s get down to it. There are several ways to keep your sanity while dealing with family drama.

The Good Advice


One quick way to take your blood pressure back down into the healthy range is to count your breaths in and out. Count the seconds that tick by as you slooowly inhale…and then count the seconds as you slooowly exhale. Deep breaths force more oxygen into your blood, which can make you feel a little buzzed and happy. The bathroom is a good place to hide out for a few minutes, but if you can lay down while you do this, you may be rewarded with tingles from head to toe. Yay, endorphins.

Emotionally Disengage

My therapist has described an exercise where, when you get emotionally worked up, you recognize your emotions but step outside yourself. You think of a happy place, view yourself in third person, and take control over your emotions as though they were a car that could be driven anywhere you wanted to point it. (I’ll be honest with you, I have yet to get the hang of this one, but it’s worth a mention.)

Text a Friend

Giving someone you actually like a play-by-play of your brother-in-law’s out of control rage antics as he watches The Big Game will help you find humor in the situation. Sharing an in-joke with your bestie makes everything seem a little easier to withstand.

Set Boundaries

The number one way to avoid talking about a subject with a dysfunctional family member is to lock down your lips tighter than Fort Knox and refuse to engage. If you’re not naturally stubborn (like yours truly), just remember that this tactic works best on a zero tolerance policy. Don’t try to rationalize with the person who’s badgering you–don’t complain, don’t ask them to stop, don’t try to edit things out and only tell them the things you think are safe. Just REFUSE to talk about it. You can say, “I won’t talk about that with you.” And then shut your mouth and wait for them to get the message. This tool is incredibly gratifying once you’ve mastered it, because it’s a great reminder that no one can force you into emotional coercion. But if your overbearing mother just won’t let up…

Walk Away

Regardless of what you’ve been told, the key to surviving dysfunctional family relationships is recognizing that you are still your own person with your own agency. If things get too intense, go for a walk. Drive to the store. Hide in an unused closet and text your friends (see above) what you’d like them to do with your remains after The Smith Family Apocalypse is over. You don’t even have to excuse yourself, just disappear until the worst has passed and the pie is being served.


The Bad Advice


This one’s a classic for a reason–you won’t be the only one to need it. Even if you’re in a totally dry house, you can sneak in mini-bottles or a flask and make a cocktail out of anything. In my own WASPy family, the bar is the first stop after “hello.” My cousins and siblings and I have even made a ritual out of our coping mechanism, and ritual, thy name is White Russians. Oh, hey! We’re being festive! It’s tradition!


I don’t just mean the illegal ones, although if you’re predisposed to go that way, who am I to stop you? I mean all manner of substances.

For instance, your levelheaded aunt who smokes has a great excuse for getting out of the house after tense dinner conversation. (You can hang with her outside even if you never light up. No one will come looking for you in the garage.)

If you have prescription medications for occasional anxiety, bring ’em. But in a pinch, many common over the counter medications contain antihistamines which will make you feel nice and mellow, even when your dad’s second wife is smashing plates on the kitchen floor. Look for an ingredient called Diphenhydramine HCI, which is found in things like Benadryl, Unisom, Tylenol PM, Midol and Premasyn. It’s primary use is as an allergy pill, but you’ll find it in sleeping pills and PMS medications, used to help take the edge off.

You might also want to pack some Ibuprofen for the pounding headache you just know you’re going to get after playing poker with the cousins.


The Ugly Advice

Stoke the Fire

Hell, if you’re going to be surrounded by irrational people with opinions they can’t support, conspiracy theories for which they have no proof, or an unquenchable desire to sing “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” every five minutes, at least make it interesting for yourself. Be the gadfly. Push their buttons. Raise your voice. Introduce the topic of Socialism or Herman Cain–whichever is more likely to be a hot-button issue at your dinner table. Make it worse and then sit back and think about all the unbelievable stories you’ll have for your memoirs.


It’s okay, baby. You’ll survive the holidays, even if it leaves you emotionally tapped for a week afterward. (I know from experience.) But no matter how bad it gets, just remember one thing: Time passes anyway. The holidays will end. And no matter what–no matter what–the horror of your family can’t last forever, because death is inescapable.



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