How to Survive Time With a Dysfunctional Family

by Andrea M. Darcy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Not one of those rare people with a happy family? Feel stressed by an umpcoming family gathering, and worried it will be a disaster as usual?

What are the best tactics to get through a dysfunctional family reunion?

1. Lower your expectations.

Just because you are changing doesn’t mean your family is. Expecting your mother to now be interested in better communication because you are, or your siblings to be excited about your new job overseas if they never travel? You'll just be left feeling let down.

Save your expectations for a colleague who is being paid to do his or her job, or a partner who you are committed to growing together with.

But family? The less expectations you have the better.

2. Uncharge in advance.

Does your family tend to trigger you? Then don't show up already tense or moody. Do a few hours journalling before you go, spend time with a punching bag at the gym, fit in a session with a counsellor…. Whatever works to leave you uncharged, calm, and ready to navigate family booby traps!

3. Stick to the here and now.

Yes, you might have very real past grievances. Or you might have hopes for the future that you are anxious to discuss with a family member, such as a family holiday you aren’t agreeing on.

But past and future issues are best dealt with one-on-one, not at a family get-together when everyone is already stressed.

Try to stick to the present moment and what it offers - there will be far less of a chance of a blowout.

4. Imagine you just met them all.

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to get along with total strangers than your own family?

We have history with our family, and this means we often see them through blinders of past hurts or confusion. If seeing your dysfunctional family always triggers you, try spending the next reunion pretending they were strangers before this meeting.

What new things about family members can you notice you didn’t before? Do they have a side you can enjoy?

5. Talk in neutral.

Often with family we have charged ways of speaking we don’t use on friends and colleagues. Without meaning to, you might be making things harder for yourself or causing tension with others. Try to stay neutral by:

  • starting sentences with 'I' over 'you' to avoid blame ('I feel bothered when you do that' vs 'you do that to bother me')
  • using 'I' over 'we' to avoid ganging up ('I feel you talk' a lot vs 'we feel you talk too much')
  • not hiding criticisms in jokes (it wouldn't be Christmas without you complaining')
  • watching out for the accusatory words ‘always’ and ‘never’ ('you always do that', 'you never do that').

6. Practice listening like a therapist.

So few people listen well nowadays that anyone who does?Ccomes across as having a super power that leaves others feeling deeply appreciated. Why not try it on a family member you usually disagree with?

Listen fully, without interrupting, planning what to say next, or matching things with your own story. Just reflect back what they said to make sure you heard correctly, then ask questions.

You might find the very person you were worried would upset you is responding totally differently to you.

7. Stick to your boundaries.

If anyone can break down boundaries it’s family. But if you’ve said you won’t be drinking alcohol, or are leaving early, then don’t let others push you to give in. Even if it seems like no big deal, it is, because you've betrayed yourself. You’ll leave feeling bitter.

If you find boundaries hard, ask a trusted family member or partner in advance to give you support should you start letting your boundaries drop.

Family always getting you down, and wish you had someone to talk to who understands? Why not try a session with one of our therapists? Book today and be talking as soon as tomorrow.

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