The holiday season has an unparalleled way of shining a spotlight on the stuff many of us try to avoid, ignore, or forget during the rest of the year: the loud silence brought on by once-close family relationships that, for one reason or another, have now gone cold, the loneliness you feel despite being in a room full of people because you just “don’t fit in” with your family, the grief that sits in your chest when there is someone missing from this year’s gatherings, or insert one of the many other factors that either help create or result from complicated family dynamics. 

In the whirlwind that comes with the holiday season, it can be easy to ignore the reality that complicated family relationships make the holidays, well, complicated. Whether you find yourself already dashing from one gathering to the next, running into stores to do some last minute shopping, or panic searching for the “best holiday appetizer recipes” because you just remembered you are responsible for bringing one to a holiday party this afternoon (Oops. No worries- I’m panic searching with you), you are likely feeling the haste that these days inevitably bring.  

And despite the excitement that accompanies holiday planning and prepping, you may also find that you are experiencing a collision of varied emotions that accompany the holidays. More often than not, challenging and multi-layered family relationships are at the root of these conflicting emotions. It’s no secret that most families come with their fair share of baggage. After all, people are complex, relationships are messy, grief is real, and none of that will magically vanish with a perfect planned holiday party or the familiar adage: “There’s no place like home for the holidays.”

Holding Multiple Truths in Tandem

Photo Credit:

I’m not here to rain on the holiday joy parade. Truly. This time of year is supposed to be marked with gathering, joy, hope, love, laughter, peace, connection. And hopefully some (or a lot) of that is true for you. But I think it’s worth noting that we are able to hold in tandem multiple truths: For many, the holidays bring both joy and grief, connection and isolation, hope and despair, laughter and tears.

It’s easier, however, to talk about cookies and gathering times, outfits and presents, snow and shopping than it is to talk about loneliness, loss, unmet expectations, and broken relationships. But the broken relationships, grief, and anxiety that meets some of us during this season are as real as the meals we prepare, presents we pick, and gatherings we plan.

6 Reminders and Tips to Help You Navigate Complicated Family Dynamics During the Holidays

Whatever you experience in tandem this year – joy and grief, laughter and tears, gratitude and disappointment, connection and loneliness – we recognize that it is rare to find a family that doesn’t bring with it a mix of all of these emotions, and these conflicting emotions can make the holiday season a bit more complicated. 
So, if you are showing up to a family gathering or event where the relationships are strained and messy, or if you are shouldering the grief due to a loss, or if you are feeling the void of an empty home while others gather with their families, here are a few quick reminders and tips to meet you where you are at and help you navigate the days and weeks ahead:

1. Two (or Three, Four, Five) Feelings Can Exist at Once

 As mentioned above, you can hold joy in one hand and grief in another. Your heart can hold love for your family members and feelings of disappointment over how relationships have changed. You can feel thankful for the chance to gather with your family and also be anxious about how the interactions will take form at said gathering. You are not “missing out on the holiday spirit” by balancing conflicting emotions, and you should not feel guilty for feeling a multitude of emotions at one time; by recognizing the reality of these emotions, you are being honest with yourself about the impact these emotions have on your holiday experience. 

2. You Get to Choose How You “Show Up”

Literally and figuratively. My therapist recently said to me, “We all get to choose how we show up” in our relationships, in our homes, and in our interactions each day, and this stuck with me. We may not be able to predict or choose how each gathering will unfold or how someone else will respond to us, but we do get to choose how we spend our time, how we present ourselves, and how we respond to the people we are around. 

Consider how you want to “show up” at your next gathering or in your next face-to-face conversation with a difficult family member. If your family relationships are complicated and layered, how can you plan to show up to make your gatherings as healthy and enjoyable as possible? You get to choose where you go, how long you stay, and how you act and interact when you are there. 

If there will be kids at your next gathering, could you choose to engage with them for a large portion of the time you are there? This could help you (and the kids!) have a fulfilling and enjoyable experience without highlighting complicated adult relationships. Could you make a point to “extend an olive branch” to a challenging family member by complimenting a dish they brought or asking about their job? Could you choose not to engage in a conversation that could become contentious in the interest of preserving your own peace during the gathering? 

While some of these may not be possible or plausible for everyone, choosing how you show up rather than simply reacting in a moment can empower you when you attend a gathering (or series of gatherings) where family dynamics are complicated.

3. You Can (and Should!) Make Room for Grief

Grief shows up in our hearts and homes in many ways during the holiday season. For many who have complicated families or have lost loved ones due to death or estrangement, sadness, loneliness, and grief are some of the byproducts of celebrating without them. Whether you are grieving the loss of a loved one or the loss of a relationship, recognize and honor those feelings.

If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, consider how you can make that person’s memory a part of the get-togethers or traditions: Make a recipe that reminds you of this person, look through old pictures or videos that house moments you had with them, or spend time reminiscing with another family member over memories you have with this person. 

If you’re grieving the loss of an important relationship, consider spending some time alone to ruminate in these feelings for a while. You may consider writing this person a card or note. Maybe you give it to them (if it is possible and healthy to do so), or maybe it will be cathartic to simply write it. 

Whatever your loss and wherever your grief lies, it’s important to make room for it in a way that validates your experiences and feelings.

4. Differences are Okay: Anticipate Them and Adjust Expectations

There tends to be an unspoken (or maybe, in some families, spoken) expectation that family members should think, act, and live the same because, well, “We are family!” As a result, when one or more family members deviate from the accepted norms of thought, beliefs, lifestyle, this can be a breeding ground for resentment.

Bring all of these family members together for the holidays, and you’ve got a gathering marked with tension, passive aggressive comments, strained relationships, and an odd sense of ‘competition’ over whose beliefs, opinions, or lifestyle is “better.” 

And if you’re hoping to get through or actually enjoy a gathering with family members who you may not have much in common with, try to approach the gathering with some adjusted expectations. Clashes in opinion, beliefs, and lifestyle are probable when a group of individuals gather together – even when these people are members of your immediate family. But the holidays do not have to be a time of confrontation. Consider what you are willing to avoid or “let go” in conversations that bring up and highlight differences. This doesn’t make you complacent; rather, it is an opportunity for you to recognize when and where controversial discussions may not produce fruitful results. 

5. Surface-Level Connection Can Still be Connection

While the idea of sitting in a room spending hours catching up and having deep, life-giving conversations with family is nice, this is not realistic or attainable for many families. If “idle time” at holiday gatherings historically brings up conflict, creates tension, or otherwise highlights the friction present in a family dynamic, consider planning an activity as a method of connecting. Decorating cookies, making a meal together, watching a movie, or playing a card or board game can be a great way to connect without the pressure to converse deeply.

6. Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

This one makes it onto many lists of tips and advice when it comes to navigating tough relationships, and there’s a reason for it! Here is your reminder that it is healthy to set and maintain boundaries, especially during the holidays. Identify areas where you may need to establish boundaries — with your time, emotions, finances, topics of conversation — at gatherings or otherwise throughout the rest of the holiday happenings and events. Doing this can help you head into holiday get-togethers with less anxiety and come out feeling less resentment and disappointment. Also, it’s important to remember that boundaries aren’t always put in place to ‘keep people out’; you establish them to help you maintain control over your own emotions, relationships, and, in this particular case, your holiday experience. 

When Facing Complicated Family Relationships This Holiday Season, Remember: You Are Not Alone

If your family doesn’t look or operate the way you hoped it would this year as gatherings and holiday events ensue, you are not alone. This time of year brings us in close proximity with many people and relationships: some full of authenticity, love, and connection, and others marked with hurt, grief, and unresolved conflict. It’s important to recognize both, allow yourself the ability to plan and process accordingly, and position yourself to hopefully enjoy the gatherings, events, and interactions you have this year. 

May your holiday gatherings bring with them improved relationships and connection, or, at the very least, less conflict and more peace in the face of challenging family relationships. And if that is not possible this season, I hope healing, connection, and joy are waiting for you on the other side of this year’s gatherings in the weeks, months, and and year ahead.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of emotions and experiences that accompany complicated family relationships, our therapists in Pennsylvania would be honored to help!  You can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique journey for each of us, and we all have our individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s difficulties and we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to helping you on this journey!