Dreading Seeing Your Dysfunctional Family? How to Prepare

Dread seeing your dysfunctional family at the holidays? Does it go pear-shaped every year, leaving you mired in frustration and guilt?

Editor and lead writer Andrea Blundell explores tips to help you navigate your family gathering.

7 Ways to Prepare for Seeing Your Dysfunctional Family

1. Lower your expectations. A lot.

Yes, your great longing might be for your family to see you as you really are now, not for who you were as a child or adolescent. But no matter what sort of authenticity acrobatics you perform, you simply can’t control other people. And having expectations just leaves us feeling letdown every time.

As for having a happy family like your friend, nobody’s family is perfect, despite what it seems. And the comparison will just make you feel worse.

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TRY THIS: Make a list of all the things you expect from your family, being as honest as you can, and not judging yourself for what you write. Then try to recognise and cross off the things that are actually unrealistic. With the expectations that remain, work to end up with five or less in total.

2. Declutter, capital D.

An emotional declutter, that is.

Few family blowouts are caused by the emotions of the here and now, but by a backlog from past upsets.

While you can’t deal with your dysfunctional family history in a day or a week, you can up your chances of being triggered with some ‘deep dive journalling’.

TRY THIS: Take some loose sheets of paper and make a promise to yourself to rip them up after (this lowers the fear factor for what follows). Then let fly onto the page. Scrawl out anything and everything about members of your family, no matter how childish or mean. Keep going for as long as you can, or until you feel an emotional release, such as crying. Then DO rip up the pages!

3. Balance it all out.

Are your thoughts about your upcoming visit with your dysfunctional family very negative, and even a bit extreme? Do they sound like, “they never”, “they always”?

When we are worried, we can go intocognitive distortions’, where we warp reality with our thoughts. This tends to just increase anxiety. Take a tip from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and try to find balanced thinking using the following truncated version of a CBT thought chart.

TRY THIS: Write down a negative thought you have about seeing your family (they all secretly hate me). Now write down the exact opposite, no matter how strange it feels (they all secretly love me). Now find a thought in the middle (they don’t like me all the time, but sometimes they are okay with me).  Try doing this for all the negative thoughts you have about your family.

4. Talk it out in advance.

Not by actually contacting the family members you have issues with, but by yourself. How is this possible? Look to Gestalt therapy and its ‘chair technique’.

TRY THIS: Place two chairs facing each other. The chair you sit in is you, the other chair represents your family member. Now talk to the chair as if you are talking to that person, telling them all the things you have issues with. When you are ready, switch chairs. Respond back to your chair as if you are now that other person talking to you, saying whatever comes out, unedited. Keep switching chairs and ‘dialoguing’, until you feel resolution.

5. Practise being present. 

Conflict often happens because we are so worried about what is going to happen (future) and so upset about what happened between us and someone else already (past) we are unable to even notice if a parent or sibling is being calm or nice to us. Instead, we jump to conclusions over a misplaced comment or gesture.

Mindfulness helps by keeping us in anchored in the present and fully available to what is actually happening. It’s most helpful if we have a daily practise we can ramp up several days in advance of a family get together. If that’s not you, it’s still worth learning mindfulness right now (it’s easy to learn with our Mindfulness Guide). Or use the quick technique below.

TRY THIS: Place your attention on your feet, noticing the ground beneath them, breathing deeply and relaxing your shoulders, arms. Now find one thing in this now moment for each of your senses. A smell, a sound, a taste, a colour, a sensation like your shirt against your arm. What does it feel like to be more present? Could you try this trick at your family reunion if you feel stressed or distracted?

6. Create a support buddy. 

Have a partner coming with you to a family reunion? Or a sibling you do get along with who wants to also stay calm around your dysfunctional family? Talk out your concerns in advance and make it clear how you’d like them to support each other.

This should NOT involve asking them to choose sides with you in possible arguments. Making ‘triangles’ by pulling a partner into a fight you have with a family member just makes the other person feel ganged up on and defensive.

TRY THIS: Come up with a natural code word or phrase that can be said if you need a reminder to take a time out or not react to something. It can be as simple as them asking you, “Do you need a glass of water?”.  If with a partner, you might also want a code phrase for any emergency exits should things get very tense. “Don’t forget about my early start tomorrow….”

7. Practice saying no.

Is your issue with family a boundary problem? Walk out of each reunion having promised to yet again arrange a family holiday you hate, or to pay for a gift you don’t agree with?

Then time to up your talent for saying no — without any excuse attached, without a guilty face, just a strong, clear negative.

TRY THIS: Make a list of ten different ways to say no to what it is you think your family will ask you Then role play with a partner or friend. Set a timer for one minute and have them repetitively ask you for that thing and respond, with no  qualifying excuses or guilt. “No, I can’t. No, that doesn’t work for me, not this time, I am going to have to say no, unfortunately I am not helping this year.”

Each time you make an excuse or frown or look guilty, reset the timer until you make the full minute saying no calmly. They can then randomly ask you throughout the week, practising putting you on the spot.

Sure it will be a disaster anyway?

Do your issues with family go very deep? And is it something that bothers you often, not just during holidays? Or that causes you to act in certain ways you regret with your partner and friends?

Sometimes we need to get to the roots of things to see progress. This might be the year to finally do so by taking the time to try counselling or psychotherapy, where you can learn new ways of seeing and behaving that help you move forward at last.

Harley Therapy connects you with top counselling psychologists and psychotherapists in central London locations. Not in the city? Then use our booking platform to find UK-wide registered therapists or online therapists you can talk to from anywhere. 


Still have a question about navigating your dysfunctional family, or want to share your own tip with others. Use the comment box below. 

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