Navigating Difficult Family Dynamics During the Holidays

November 20, 2014

No matter how old we are, how successful we are in life, or how experienced we are in dealing with relationships, the stress of holiday get-togethers can be a challenge.

During this time of year, it’s a good idea to have some strategies in place for coping with the difficult moments so that you can actually appreciate those family holiday parties.

  1. Tell yourself “I’m not the only one is struggling with this.” There’s no reason to feel inadequate or self-critical when you’re on edge at a family gathering. It’s not unusual to struggle with holding onto your adult self when with your family of origin. Take a breath and use one of your self-care strategies.
  2. Avoid strong emotional reactions by meditating. Meditation experts say, “The door to the present moment is through the body.” Relax. Take a breath. Take another breath. Take another breath and focus on the physical aspects of breathing. Feel the coolness of the air as you take it in through your mouth and nose. Feel the warmth as your breath leaves your body. Focus on the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. This focus on your body will help relax you physically and emotionally.
  3. Take a break. Find a reason to walk around the block or run to the convenience store. I’ve been known to leave a crowded room at a relative’s home and wander into the living room to look at the pictures or sit in a chair and quietly read a magazine article.
  4. Don’t take it personally. The less you take comments and interactions personally the more ability you have to make a conscious choice about your response instead of being offended. Which leads to the next strategy.
  5. Become an observer of family dynamics. You can hold onto yourself and learn a lot if you can put your reactive emotions on a back burner and observe your family. Who in the family is likely to attack or criticize? Who avoids conflict? Who is seeking attention? One of the most interesting aspects of family interaction involves triangles of people. When two people are arguing, who do they try to pull in to resolve it? Who are the allies? Who is gossiping?
  6. Finally, apply compassion to yourself and to your loved ones. Every one of us has a hurt feeling or two as a result of growing up in even the most loving family. Many of us grew up in families who faced significant challenging life events and even trauma. A little understanding of our very human vulnerabilities can help us extend the same understanding to others.


Wanda Sevey, MDiv, LMFT, is a licensed couples and family therapist in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  In addition to working with couples in counseling, she has been involved in couples education for 15 years.