8 Tips On Surviving Your Dysfunctional Family During The Holidays

Is there a normal family left in America?  I have reached the point where I am putting the “normal family” in my Sasquatch category – I’ve heard a lot about it but haven’t seen any documented visual evidence.  Dysfunction has become an institutionalized aspect of our society.

Dysfunction is generally an inconvenience in our lives until the holidays arrive.  We stress about the complexities of interacting with family and the drama and conflict that could result.  So how do we properly manage the conflict and not only survive the holidays, but actually enjoy them.

Here are some things that have worked for me.  By the way, when I do the opposite (which I have), well you can figure out the result.

  1. Prepare Or Repair – Determine in advance what subjects you will discuss.  Try to determine in your mind how comments you view as completely innocent will be perceived by others.  A phrase that has helped me is before I put someone in their place (which we don’t like to admit at parties but we would love to do), put myself in their place.
  2. Initial Hello – Greet every family member with a hug and “It’s great to see you!”  You never have to recover from a good start.
  3. Interests – Talked about their interests.  Ask them questions about their job, hobbies, children, etc…  Everyone’s favorite subject is themselves.
  4. Children – Whatever issues exist, it is not the fault of your nephews, nieces, and grandchildren.  Pour your life into them.  If real dysfunction does exist, they will one day remember and seek out those who loved them unconditionally.
  5. Multi-Room Activity – It helps to have people in multiple rooms with a variety of activity going on.  This provides a buffer and excellent “exit strategy” because you can say “Let me go check on the children.”
  6. Don’t Ruin A Good Time – Stay away from these type of  phrases “I’ve only seen you three times in last year.”  “I better enjoy this because it will be months before I see you again.”  This will abort any positive momentum that may be occurring.  
  7.  Attractiveness – Rick Warren say “You can only win friends to Christ.  You can’t reach your enemies.”  This applies to your family as well.  If you want to see positive change, that only happens when you are likeable.
  8. Value Over Lifestyle –  You can appreciate the value of a person without approving of how they are living their lives and the decisions they are making.  When it comes to value, Jesus valued your family enough that He died for them.  Case closed on the value issue!  If Jesus values them that much, so can I.

Leaders, why is this post important to you?  Leadership begins at home.  Excellent self-leadership is critical to having a positive holiday experience.  Also, what is sobering is to remember that someone is possibly worried about how to survive you! 

My prayer for everyone reading this post is that this will be the best, most fulfilling holiday season you have ever had.

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About Brian Dodd on Leadership

I am a church stewardship and leadership consultant for INJOY Stewardship Solutions. This blog combines my personal passions of church, sports, pop culture and family into a single leadership resource. I trust your time on this site will create conversations and add value to your life.

64 Responses to “8 Tips On Surviving Your Dysfunctional Family During The Holidays”

  1. Excelent! I loved the phrase “You never have to recover from a good start.”. That’s so true! In all kinds of activities or realizations, if I start it well, I wont regret its beginnig…

  2. Great stuff! Will want a decent amount of time to absorb your post:D

  3. I know this is really boring and you are skipping to the next comment, but I just wanted to throw you a big thanks – you cleared up some things for me!

  4. I was extremely pleased to locate this website.I wanted to thank you with regard to this excellent read!! I certainly appreciated every little bit of it and I’ve you bookmarked to look at new things you publish.

  5. I’ve grown up in a somewhat dysfunctional family, but at the same time, I think each family has their own things…it is sad that family values have gone downhill because I think there are far more dysfunctional families, than functional ones, who love and support each other unconditionally in this day and age. Thank for a great, humorous post, that really has some truly good advice in it as well! Now I wonder if my family would be offended if I handed this out to each person at my family christmas party next weekend! LOL!

  6. Its sad to see that family values are disappearing. The crux of the matter is that people do not take their lives holistically but divide it into career, person, family and other pursuits. The moment we realise that we make a livelihood not for its own sake but for our loved one’s, then our efforts will centre around our families. Family time shouldn’t be just the holiday season, but each and every day of our life. Having a large family is a blessing as by that we have many people around us and we don’t get sad, lonely or depressed. That is why in Islam, polygamous marriages are encouraged to support widows, orphans and lonely women from disadvantaged groups.

  7. LOL I so needed to see this lol

  8. paininthenecktv RT @BrianKDodd 8 Tips On Surviving UR Dysfunctional Family During The Holidays: http://wp.me/pVReH-B2

  9. Dysfunction has become an institutionalized aspect of our society. Dysfunctional families seem to be the norm even since the days of Cain and Abel, the days of Joseph as well, and for King David now too.. a result of sin.


    • I agree completely. Unfortunately, a lot of people use this as an excuse to not own their junk. “Everybody’s got issues…so you can’t call me out on mine.” It’s a subtle form of relativism. Maybe not so subtle!

      I am so happy in recent years to see a movement in the church of transparency that we do not have it all together and that is the whole point of the gospel! We are all jacked up, so we all need Jesus. We all need mercy and grace. We all need forgiveness and to give forgiveness to others.

      I just get bothered when folks shirk their need to give and receive grace because we are all in the same boat!

  10. ServingStrong RT @BrianKDodd: 8 Tips On Surviving Yur Dysfunctional Family During The Holidays: http://wp.me/pVReH-B2 #leadership #relationships #pastors

  11. jsangl So proud of @BrianKDodd – his leadership blog is featured on WordPress.com’s MAIN WEBSITE today! AWESOME! Read the post: http://ow.ly/3dGNu

  12. These get togethers are so stressful. I always try to think of it as a Missions trip! Keep expectations low and be pleasantly blessed.
    I just posted on my own dysfunctional family the other day.

  13. Wonderful post! The holidays can be stressful with all the hustle and bustle thats going on.

  14. Entrepreneur4Filipino Reply 11/23/2010 at 3:52 PM

    Great Information! Not just good for the Family but also in the Office! Will keep your tips in mind! Thanks.

  15. If a negative comes to mind, simply stay silent. That thought will pass.

  16. Treat the old people like Children. Never say ‘what do you want to do’, or they will all fall out. Be positive and tell them what they are doing. So, tomorrow We will be doing x. They like it.

  17. This is a good post. Can’t wait for Christmas 🙂

  18. Great Post! Can definitely understand. 🙂

  19. Good advice. I agree that it is important to try and get things off on the right foot (no matter the past)–greeting each person is the right start.

  20. Greate post. The most important to control human life is to make an emotional control. So it will be impact to the human heart better, be not easily angered. Because of the bad emotions can destroy human life.

  21. I admit I have been in denial for years. I have always thought my family is normal. HA! Normal? What is normal? I guess normal is relevant to who you are comparing your dysfunction to. Maybe I just didn’t have a normal family in my line of sight to bring our dysfunction into the light. Well the light has been turned on and we have our fair share of dysfunction. And I say we because I am part of this family and I contribute to our dysfunction by my own denial. Thanks for the helpful tips, our families need all the help they can get. Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  22. I started a tradition years ago when my children were very young to ALWAYS make Thanksgiving at my house with my immediate family. This was the one way I knew I could make sure we had a pleasant holiday ALL DAY LONG. We might visit at another family member’s house, or maybe even share a meal or desert (although we haven’t done that in a very long time), but I make our house the source of our own holiday. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, because I truly believe in giving thanks all year long for all the ways God has blessed me. It means a lot to me and I have taught my children how important it is to always give thanks for our blessings. I visit my family at other times of the year, so it’s not like I never see them. I like having all the turkey leftovers and extras and spending time with my own kids. That time is precious to me.

  23. Great post, I especially like the Rick Warren quote.

    If I was to add in one more thing to your list it would be to be well-organised. Doing everything at the last minute will only increase your stress levels and make you less fun to be around.

    Happy holidays to you and your family.

  24. All great ideas! I’m going to need this…and will put it to use!


  25. excellent post! will be a big help this season….

  26. I literally just finished talking to my boss about my dysfunctional family and how I’m trying to avoid awkward moments. You put such a positive spin on it. Jesus loves us all equally, no matter if you’re totally nuts or not. I’m going to remember now to share His love with my family during the holidays. God bless 🙂

  27. me llamo brown Reply 11/22/2010 at 10:19 PM

    OMG I need to print this out and take a copy with me! I am having Thanksgiving with the in-laws, enough said.

  28. Neat!
    all your suggestions are so obvious…and yet, never had I considered them in such a cut and dry fashion before.

    It’s kind of sad, don’t you think, that we need to head into family events with a “game plan”…
    big sigh!

    blessings on your Thanksgiving, and congrats on freshly pressed!

  29. Yea, I would say try a “dry” Thanksgiving. No alcohol will cut down on the hateful recall that causes too many families to bicker.

  30. I don’t remember having fights when we got together with my family…but maybe I’m blocking it out. Now it’s only my little family, my husband and my two sons 18 & 21 & I and we have a great time. A small family is nice and cozy. Eventually it will grow I’m sure and I will be the matriarch and I hope I am easy going…we’ll see. Thanks for the advice though!


  31. http://modeandlife.wordpress.com/

    Nice post!! holidays are sooo bad

  32. I liked these suggestions. The topic one is very important as you never know what can set someone off. Better to to be well armed ahead of time to avoid problems at the event. Congrats on being freshly pressed.

  33. My family isn’t scary at all, but I think they must be the exception! This is a good, well thought out and practical list of tips. Nice job.

  34. nobodyelsethoughtofthis Reply 11/22/2010 at 7:44 PM

    Too funny! I logged in shortly after a heated coversation with my mother who took it upon herself to invite some of her friends to our family Thanksgiving which I am hosting without even so much as mentioning it to me first. Ugh. Boundaries, anyone? Thanks for this post. I can’t really imagine anyone who does’t deal with at least some of this stuff.

  35. Sometimes people use “nobody’s normal” or “what is normal?” as a cop out. I think the real question is what’s healthy. We all have dysfunction in our families to one degree or another. Said differently, we are all imperfect people, maybe even the S word (sinners)! That means we are going to hurt and/or disappoint each other. The holidays are no exception.

    What I like about Brian’s post is that it encourages us to be proactive about how we approach time with family during the holidays. If we walk into it with no preparation, we are at the mercy of our on-the-spot reactions. Thinking about it, even praying about it, ahead of time can only help!

  36. Abnormal is the new normal. And if everybody’s abnormal, it means nobody is.

  37. great list! id have to write some of this down on my hand right before the family gets in. congrats on being freshly pressed as well!


  38. You said….Greet every family member with a hug and “It’s great to see you!” Obviosuly you never met my family …just sayin’

    We’re a big, loud, Greek family…screaming and yelling is in our DNA, but I do believe we all love each other at some level…we just haven’t found that level yet 🙂



  39. Yesterday my family got together for my grandmother’s birthday. Afterwards when back at my mom’s house everyone was talking badly about the family we just visited. I stopped everyone and had them say something positive about each family member. We all have value. Thanks for the reminder.

  40. Multiple rooms are great — if you live somewhere that large. Don’t forget, some of us live in small apartments!

    People need to remember that whatever life choices they have made, if others have made those less conventional (no partner or kids,) they love their life as it is — not if or when it begins to conform to others’.

    Be extra kind around job-related issues; if someone has lost their job or been out of work for a long time, it’s a very sore topic.

  41. Definitely suggestions for me to take to heart this holiday season!! Thanks.

  42. Amazing reminder! Thank you Brian. I was dreading the trip home for the holidays, but your article made me consider an attitude change. Keep up the good work.

    Carol in bama

  43. “Sasquatch” indeed…dysfunction is the new black when it comes to families!


    Great tips, and I do hope they work. Best wishes for a happy holiday season to you and yours!

  44. THANK YOU- I needed that.

    • Thanks for checking in on me after the holidays at my blog to see how it went. It went well – with both sides, mine and my husbands. I find item #3 to be the best advice.

  45. This is good stuff. As a youth pastor, it’s shocking the amount of advice that is asked from students on how to walk into their holiday’s because of so much dysfunction. Great words!

  46. My wife always makes fun of me when I tell her that I prepare conversation topics for holidays. I am glad to see that I’m not the only one to take this approach. : )
    PS – Arrived via Freshly Pressed.

  47. i think the reason im still single is because im scared of introducing someone to my fam. haha. is that wrong?

  48. As raised by your last point I always ask myself whether my behaviour reflects that of someone I’d like to spend time with. It’s my choice and responsibility to come across as the person I want to be.

  49. Nice post. However, I do think the situation you describe is considered “normal.” It becomes dysfunctional when the stress and chaos is handled with alcohol or abuse, which many families do. In a “normal” family, we’re all going to rub one another the wrong way at some point.

  50. Great post. I will never forget the first time my wife accompanied me for “the fractured family Christmas” at my step mother’s family’s house. Talk about awkward! Do you bring a gift? What if they get something. Who are these people? Gah!!!

  51. Thanks for your note. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Feel free to repost it. I hope it adds value to your readers. Brian


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