Surviving Your Toxic Family Around the Holidays

by Alexis Barad-Cutler

Many of us can relate to having that one uncle whose lecherous stare is gross enough to make you want to take a shower, immediately — or the toxic Mother in Law who has an iciness that rivals some of the greatest Disney villains. For most of the year, we luck out in not having to be near the harmful people we may share bloodlines or family ties with. But around the holidays, unfortunately, we might have to spend more time with family (in close quarters no less) than we would prefer. Worse, we have to expose our beloved children to these people.

I threw out the question, “What stresses you out during holiday time?” to Mom Group this week, and right alongside finances, and the stresses of gift buying, conflicts about being with family members (particularly the in-laws) began to flood my DM’s. Some women wrote in about in-laws who barely visit, and how hurtful that is. Others wrote about MIL’s who openly favor one set of grandkids over another, or mothers who are emotionally abusive, or mentally ill, or parents who have contentious relationships with one’s significant other. It’s a veritable shit show out there — and it’s all adorned in tinsel and topped with a shiny, sparkly Christmas star!

So, how to deal? How the hell should I know? I’m escaping to a sunny place with my husband and kids for the holiday (see Tip #1). In case you need it, I looked around the Interwebs for some helpful advice — and compiled my favorite tips from a few different sources that I felt best addressed some of the stories Mom Group came forward with. If you have resources you think might be helpful to the group, please comment below, or DM me at @notsafeformomgroup. Happy, merry, everything!

TIP #1: Just say no.

So many of us spread ourselves razor thin to accommodate everyone’s expectations of us around the holidays — to the point that we forget that we should be enjoying ourselves at least a tiny bit. But as this tip from Psychology today says: “It’s OK to say no when you’re asked to do more than you can. It’s fine to say no to some invitations and fine to say no to those asking for favors. Remember, this is your holiday too!” (Psychology Today.)

TIP #2: Escape when you can.

This advice from Psychology Today is pretty brilliant. You have to claim your moments, and strategize on how to get out of Dodge as seamlessly as possible: “Find out what time dinner will actually be served and arrive just early enough to comfortably take your seat at the table, and then leave early if you can. Make plans with a local friend to break up your time there, or go catch a movie.” (Psychology Today)

 

TIP #3: Don’t Spend the Holidays with Family.

As Lauri Apple writes in her piece for “Sometimes it's just healthier and more loving to let everyone have their space, until a better time comes for sharing one space. But making that decision requires letting go of "what others might say," which can be difficult.” In other words, you have to stop caring what might pass through the family grapevine over the next couple of weeks. (Jezebel)

TIP #4: Set Secure Boundaries .
Oprah (or her magazine, at least) always gets it right: “Given that your family members will probably go on being their same old selves, you need to decide how much contact with them you really want. Prior to the event, think through various boundary options until you come up with a scenario that makes you feel comfortable. Would you be more enthusiastic about a get-together if you planned to leave after no more than four hours? Or three? Two? One?” (Oprah)

TIP #5: Understand Your Family's Coping Mechanisms.
Apartment Therapy quotes clinical psychologist John Mayer, in saying: ”When a family member is bothering you, try to key into this behavior and always remember that their words (or actions) have nothing to do with you. . .Once you are empowered with this understanding, your empathy toward these relatives increases tremendously because you can distance yourself from getting into conflict with that person . . . “Most importantly, you're not expecting them to be different and that can actually be very empowering.”" (Apartment Therapy). Of course, not the easiest thing to do if this is all happening in proximity to your children, but it is good to at least strive for.

TIP #6: Work With What You’ve Got.

In this article on what to do if you’ve been dealt the short end of the “involved grandparent stick”, there’s a great suggestion about accepting your parents for who they are, and doing your best with that. This most likely applies to parents who aren’t quite so much as “toxic” as they are unhelpful, or simply ambivalent about their role as grandparents. But the advice does ring true: “If your folks don't initiate plans . . . try to lure them with fun events. Invite them on vacation with you or say, 'I'm taking my daughter to her first movie. Do you want to come?' You may get a no, but you're offering different chances." Should your parent have a particular passion or a hobby -- gardening, baking -- ask him or her to teach it to your child. "Home in on their specific interests and strengths.” (Parents)

TIP #6: Try to avoid leaving the house from Nov.26 – Jan.2.

You may not believe this, but you can say, “Fuck it all,” and just stay home. As Scary Mommy says: “Think of the gas you’ll save!” (Scary Mommy)