How To Cope with A Dysfunctional Family During The Holidays

Do you struggle with stress and anxiety around Christmas? Does it feel like arguments and conflict are unavoidable? If so, you are not alone.

Media and society paint the holiday season as the most wonderful time of the year, spent among your loved ones. However, the reality is often far from this perfect image. Statistics show how 24% of Brits experience stress linked to hosting or seeing certain family members during Christmas. During this time, a quarter of people in the UK struggle with loneliness, anxiety and feeling depressed. Holidays can be challenging in general, yet the issue grows drastically for those who grew up in dysfunctional families. This difficult time can trigger painful memories or put unhealthy dynamics in motion. 

In this blog post, we take a closer look at signs of dysfunction in a family, discuss common issues and share how to cope with a dysfunctional family during the holidays.

What Is a Dysfunctional Family

All families argue from time to time; that’s quite normal. While in a healthily functioning family, these conflicts are managed by communicating openly and approaching one another with trust, love and empathy, a dysfunctional family is filled with tension and hostility. In such unhealthy environment, it’s very common for these characteristics to be present:

  • Lack of healthy boundaries,
  • Aggressive behaviours,
  • Excessive criticism and control,
  • Unrealistic expectations,
  • Addictions among parents,
  • Indirect and limited communication,
  • Passive-aggressive communication
  • Lack of empathy, kindness, or compassion
  • Neglect or insufficient emotional support.

Signs of a Dysfunctional Family

If you’re wondering whether you grew up in a dysfunctional family or not, consider if these issues either took place in your childhood or are currently present in your life:

  • Having no boundaries in your family, e.g. your parent entering your room and looking through your things
  • Experiencing verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, e.g. being belittled, ridiculed or bullied by your parent
  • Parentification, e.g. having an overwhelming amount of responsibilities as a child 
  • Excessive control, e.g. not being able to have autonomy in your childhood
  • Manipulation, e.g. your parent giving you conditional love
  • Physical symptoms before, during or after spending time with your family, e.g. headache, feeling exhausted, stomachache 

How Can a Dysfunctional Family Affect Your Mental Health

Our parents/primary caregivers are the ones who show us what is right or wrong and help us make sense of the world in our childhood. The beliefs or worldviews we form as children are based on how they navigate reality. Repeatedly experiencing toxic behaviour patterns in your family as a child will lead to normalising and internalising them. 

If you grew up in such an unhealthy environment, understanding its negative impact not only in your childhood but your life later on as an adult is critical in order to cope with a dysfunctional family and learn how to break that cycle.

Common issues in childhood

Children from dysfunctional families often struggle with:

  • Fear of abandonment,
  • Having to pick sides when parents argue,
  • Being excessively controlled and criticised by a parent,
  • Parents placing unrealistic expectations on them,
  • Sibling rivalry or favouring, e.g. being a scapegoat,
  • Low self-esteem and lack of confidence
  • Physical/emotional/verbal/sexual abuse,
  • Feeling lost due to lack of boundaries,
  • Overwhelming guilt and shame,
  • Depression and anxiety in adolescence,
  • Feeling misunderstood, not knowing how to deal with loneliness,
  • Feeling flawed and unworthy of love due to parental neglect.

Common issues in adulthood

Moving out of your toxic household and entering adulthood does not mean leaving all the past issues behind. These painful experiences will impact your decisions, beliefs, emotions and behaviours in your relationships, whether romantic, professional or with friends. Repeating the dysfunctional patterns of your family is so common because of the subconscious need to fix your past issue and because it feels familiar, therefore, comfortable. 

For example, if you grew up too quickly and had to take care of your parent, chances are that as an adult, you might have a tendency to invalidate or minimise your wishes in order to satisfy the needs of others.

Many adults from dysfunctional families struggle with:

  • Trusting other people and entering healthy relationships,
  • Being overly submissive or controlling in relationships,
  • Risky behaviours and self-medicating with drugs or alcohol,
  • Asking for help, and trying to everything by themselves
  • Poor self-worth and excessive self-criticism,
  • Poor ability to regulate their own emotions
  • Indecisiveness and self-doubt,
  • Understanding their needs,
  • Seeking approval of others.

How To Cope With a Dysfunctional Family During The Holidays

Learning how to cope with a dysfunctional family during holidays starts with accepting that you cannot control or change how your family members act, yet what you can influence is your own attitude and behaviour. 

Plan Ahead

When thinking about upcoming family gatherings, do you feel anxiety creeping in? 

Do you tend to ruminate and get stuck in a spiral of negativity days before the meeting? 

Perhaps you prefer to expect the worst-case scenario to happen?

If so, imagine how a realistic plan and a positive attitude could make a difference:

  • Reflect on the past holidays. Ask yourself what went wrong and how you’d like to deal with those issues this year. Perhaps this year, you’ll decide to refrain from engaging in controversial discussions.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your friends for advice or support during this difficult time; there is no shame in seeking help. To help manage the discomfort, create an exit plan before attending a holiday gathering in case the anxiety becomes too much.
  • Consider how much time you want to spend with your family. For example, this 2019 poll from the U.S. shows how an average respondent can spend a maximum of 4 hours with their families before seeking solitude. Maybe you can inform your relatives beforehand that you’ll be leaving early. 
  • Before the gathering, make sure to engage in self-soothing activities that can decrease your stress levels and help you start the meeting at ease. Consider going for a walk, doing a gratitude practice, or listening to your favourite music. 

Set Boundaries

Enjoying your holiday can seem impossible if you’re spending it with your dysfunctional family. However, you’re not powerless. One of the most important steps you can take is to set healthy boundaries.

  • Comments you won’t tolerate:
    • e.g. “I don’t appreciate your comments regarding XYZ. I want to enjoy my time here without hearing your judgments about it, and I need you to respect this.”
  • Questions you won’t answer / topics you don’t want to discuss:
    • e.g. “Thank you for asking, but I don’t feel comfortable discussing this matter with you. Maybe you could tell me something about XYZ (their hobby)?”

It’s vital to be direct and assertive when necessary while remaining respectful. Remember that it’s okay to say no if something doesn’t feel right for you or if being around certain people causes too much distress. 

Pick Your Battles

We all have this one person in the family who knows how to push your buttons, like a nosy auntie asking very personal questions about your love life, or an annoying cousin commenting on your weight in front of everyone.

Such remarks can escalate quickly and transform into full-blown arguments, only if you let yourself get dragged in. There’s always a choice of either engaging further with the provocations or putting a physical boundary by stepping back and removing yourself from the situation. 

You have every right to leave if the tension becomes overwhelming or your family is too abusive. In such a scenario, cool down and ground yourself by going on a walk, journaling or calling a friend.

Prioritise Your Wellbeing

The best way to cope with a dysfunctional family is by prioritising your wellbeing, putting your mental health first and treating yourself with compassion, kindness, and acceptance. It can be especially difficult if you’re already experiencing guilt around not being excited about the festive season or not wanting to bond with your family. Nevertheless, it’s vital to remember that:

  • you don’t owe your family, and neither are you obliged to enjoy spending time with them,
  • you are not responsible for how your family members feel. 

Put things in Perspective

The festive season is also supposed to be about compassion kindness towards others (and yourself). When things aren’t going your way and your buttons are getting pushed, try to keep in mind that while you might be dealing with a dysfunctional family:

  • Those who are hurting you are very likely not doing it intentionally
  • Those who frustrate you, are likely dealing with their own issues
  • There are probably a lot (or a few) things you like about your family members which you might choose to focus on instead
  • The festivities are a time where you can set the grudges aside and try to make the most of your time together.
  • Even if you’re annoyed, you can make the conscious decision to make this moment about what you love about them, more than what you hate. It’s very hard, but it will pay off.

Seek Professional Help

Figuring out how to cope with a dysfunctional family during the holidays can be challenging but remember that you are not alone. Reaching out to a trusted friend or a family member who can be your ally is a great idea, but there’s a limit to their support. If you’re struggling with snowballing Christmas anxiety or a persistent feeling of guilt, shame, anger or frustration, consider getting professional help. Our qualified therapists:

  • Offer a safe, non-judgmental space within which you can talk about your complex emotions, unhelpful behaviours and where they come from. 
  • Share tools and coping strategies to effectively navigate these challenging circumstances.

Do not hesitate and contact us for a free 15-minute consultation today.

Further Reading:

Anxiety Therapy in London and Online

Stress Counselling 

Counselling for low self-esteem and lack of confidence

Anger Management Counselling

How To Deal With Christmas Anxiety

How To Cope With A Parent With Mental Health Issues

Clinically reviewed by:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More


How to Help Someone with PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health issue that can be incredibly difficult and painful to face. If your friend, partner or family member struggles with PTSD, it’s probably

9 May / 2023

Read More

Members of:

We're registered with AXA Health, AXA therapists, AXA counselling, Aviva, Vitality, Cigna, BPS, HCPC, BABCP
Free Consultation - Icon
Call Now Button