Putting the FUN back in DysFUNctional – Surviving the holidays with your extended family

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  • September 2, 2014

Dr. Steve Carter and Dr. Shirley Vandersteen, Chartered Psychologists

Let’s start with a disclaimer. There is nothing fun about a seriously dysfunctional family – one with violence, abuse, addictions, or other grave problems. Serious problems need serious help. We are going to talk about the normal, everyday issues that all families have to deal with.

All families are dysfunctional to some extent. We love the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” because we can name at least one relative for each character in the show. Most of us have odd, difficult, unpredictable, attention-seeking, or downright mean spirited family members. Your family may have long-standing conflicts that seem to have no beginning and no end. People can’t quite remember how the fight started or why certain people can’t stand each other, but everyone sits on pins and needles just waiting for someone to take offence and the feud to begin.

There are all kinds of family behaviours and traditions that worry, frustrate, exasperate, or anger us. When it’s all over and done, you try to figure out why you keep signing up for the drama and promise yourself that next time, you’ll make up some excuse and just stay away. You may deeply regret the way you acted or reacted; you may feel confused about how it all got so out of control; or you may sincerely wonder how you can change the dynamic to be more healthy in your family relationships. Or, you may just decide that these people are aliens who must have abducted your real family and you put an ad in the newspaper looking for a new family.

First, let’s talk about why certain people get to us, year after year. Family members push your buttons like no one else can because you have a shared history with these people. The familiar family context exerts a powerful influence on your reactions and behaviour. For example, when you are around our parents, you are more likely to act like a child even though you may be forty years old. In your family, you often get stuck in a role that is based on how you were as a child or adolescent. Older generations tell the same stories over and over again to reinforce these roles. Other family members find it difficult to acknowledge that you are now a functional grown-up; you have grown and changed over the years and what may have been important at one time is not important now. As an adult, you don’t want to be told to clean off your plate.

Second, during the holidays, you will likely have to spend time with family members that you have been able to avoid all year. Not only will you have to be with them, you will be in very close quarters. A family gathering is often like a three ring circus with events going on in every room. Old rivalries, old habits, old hurts, and old relationship patterns surface when the original cast of family characters step into the various rings. Perhaps you always felt that your sister was favoured and sure enough, nothing has changed – here you are being ignored again. You may dislike your cousin who continually reminds you that he makes six figures and drives a sports car. Maybe it’s your aunt who harps about your weight and says mean things about your diet, lifestyle, or choice of clothing. Sometimes it seems like these people wait all year to take their digs at you and you just can’t get away from this stuff without appearing rude or overly sensitive.

Third, alcohol is often served during the holidays and there are always one or two family members that start drinking in the morning because, after all, it is a special occasion and “It must be five o’clock somewhere!” As you recall from every other family event, for certain people alcohol usually makes things worse instead of better. They decide to be “honest and tell it like it is” or they try to discuss politics. Egos get involved and there may even be feats of strength with people who are so out of shape, they huff and puff bringing the extra chairs up from the basement.

Finally, holidays are often just as stressful and exhausting, as they are enjoyable. When people are tired, cranky and feel crowed or overwhelmed they lose patience, speak without thinking, and forget their social graces. People who have been biting their tongue all year finally let loose and say what has been on their mind. Some people expect things to be “perfect” and they try to control every moment. You can cut the tension with a knife but with these characters, you are afraid to take the sharp knives out of the drawer. Then, there is always one family member who takes perverse pleasure in refusing to fall into line and, if it isn’t you, you secretly cheer them on because anything is better than what you’ve had to put up with so far.

If all of this sounds too familiar, you are probably wondering if there is any hope at all. Fortunately there are many things you can do to not only survive the family gathering but to also enjoy it.

Start by recognising that just because someone is annoying, they do not necessarily intentionally go out of their way to get to you. Okay, maybe one or two wait all year just to make that one comment. Most of the time your relatives do not wake in the morning with their first thought being “How can I annoy my relative today?” It is more likely that they believe teasing shows they have an intimate link or privilege with you and this is a compliment to you. Ok, maybe when social skills were being taught in school, they missed school because of the mumps. Or, maybe this is as good as they get with anyone and you expect way too much of that side of the family.

Next, keep in mind that just because others may be stuck in a time warp does not mean you have to be stuck too. The best defence may be to “agree and ignore” or to go along and just get things over with because it takes less energy than arguing (although, admit it, some of you may really love to wear those little hats that come in holiday crackers along with the little prize).

Relatives say and do some things because they truly care, but they just do not have the ability to adapt as people change. They could be trying to pass on the “wisdom” they have learned from life, and may be treating you the same way their relatives treated them when they were younger. You don’t have to take everything to heart. Lower your expectations of others, wear your best Teflon suit, and remind yourself that “this too shall pass”.

Keep in mind that a sense of humour is very important. It is true that some families love to play unofficial games such as “pain poker” at the dinner table. It starts with someone complaining about their back, the next “contestant” complains of a sore back and a sore knee, and then you start hearing about more personal body functions, and on it goes. Don’t be afraid to play along, after all it is the holidays! See what happens to their game if you contribute “I have a sore back, sore knee, sore neck and I’ve been dead for a week. Top that!” Say the unexpected, laugh loudly at your own joke and maybe they’ll avoid you next year.

Think of a mantra, a few words you say over and over to yourself to help you relax. A useful mantra for a family function or for dealing with the enemy is, “Do not engage”. You know the political discussions about who was a better leader or the “one-up” discussions about who has the most important job. You’ve heard the same discussions, same time, same place, and same arguments each year, every year. Hold your tongue; you do not have to respond. Smile, walk away, go play with the kids, or help with dishes. You will be more productive and stay out of “the line of fire”. You know how it will turn out anyway.

Finally spend your time being thankful. Your family is a gift to you. Look around and see all of these people you are connected to, the people who call themselves your family. Be grateful that you are in the presence of people who love you, no matter how annoying they can be and no matter how annoying you are at times. Be thankful that genetics only counts for part of who you are as a person; you can always tell yourself that you are nothing like them. Remind yourself that while all bad things come to an end, all good things come to an end too. There are probably a number of relatives who are no longer around and whom you wish were here to annoy you just one more time.

Enjoy Your Holiday!