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Tips to Manage Holiday Family Stress

Have you ever wondered why you get anxious when thinking about family gatherings during the

holidays? You’re not alone! Dr. Murray Bowen was the founder of Family Systems Theory and

posits that “...individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a

part of their family, as the family is an emotional unit. Families are systems of interconnected

and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be understood in isolation from the system”.

And let’s face it, that is sometimes a scary thought as we like to consider ourselves evolved and

individuated (verb, to distinguish from others of the same kind) from the generational patterns

that often plague our families. However, we can rest in knowing that no family is perfect, we all

relate to one another at some level of dysfunction. In order to survive in our families, we adapt.

Each of us adapts by accepting a role in the family play.

There’s the family hero - the responsible child who’s 5 going on 40 years old. They take

on the parental role from a very young age, they are responsible and self sufficient. They make

the family look good on the outside and the parents look to this child to prove to themselves that

they are doing a good job parenting. As an adult, they become rigid, controlling and often

judgmental of themselves and others. Nothing is ever good enough. They achieve what looks

like success to the outside world but do so in an effort to gain approval and self worth

externally. Often times it takes this family member the longest time to see that there might be

some deep emotional wounds and inner self critical voices that need to be healed and accepted

as good enough.

Then we have the scapegoat, the “bad” kid, the one who acts out what the family

ignores. They provide a welcome distraction from the family’s real issues. They often get into

trouble at school and otherwise in an effort to get their need of getting attention met - even if it’s

negative attention. They are considered sensitive and internalize the family issues to the point

of self destruction. They often become cynical, distrustful adults who harbor a lot of self hatred

and seek recovery in an effort to understand their destructive patterns.

Next we have the mascot or the caretaker. This family member takes responsibility for

the family’s emotional well being. They can become the clown in an effort to divert attention

from the anger and pain in the family or the social director. They are valued for their kind heart

and ability to listen. Their whole identity becomes wrapped up in helping others, often times

putting themselves last on the list of those to receive care. They become adults with caseloads

of friends that need their help in some way and have a hard time receiving instead of giving love

and care. These are the people pleasers who often end up in abusive relationships.

Another role in the family is the lost child. The one who tries to fade into the

background. They lose themselves in books and fantasy or escape through tv and withdraw

from reality in some way. They often become adults who are commitment phobics, suffer from

low self worth and socially isolate in an effort to protect themselves from being hurt. These are

our actors or writers, who’ve sought a creative way to emotionally express their pain indirectly.

Do you recognize yourself or some of your family members in these roles? If you want

to watch a movie that brings these roles and insights to life, The Family Stone is a great case

study. We can have characteristics of several and go through phases of each at various times

in our upbringing according to what the best adaptation is for survival in the family at a particular

time. What’s important here is that we develop some awareness and an investigative sense of

curiosity about our self-development over time in relation to our childhood and how that shows

up in our adult relationships unnecessarily. This way we can begin to sift through what patterns

no longer serve the adaptive survival tactics we held on to as a result of our Family of Origin


Once we develop this awareness we can begin to choose to show up differently in our

families and rebuke the old roles that come up around the holiday family gatherings. We revert

to these old patterns when we are under stress and we have to actively commit to breaking

those neural connections. We can speak our Truth without fear of suffering because we are

adults who have adapted new and hopefully more functional ways of getting our needs met. In

order to begin this process we have to develop some useful tips, tricks and self-regulation tools

along with a present moment awareness so that we don’t dissociate and end up acting out that

dysfunctional rebellious teenager role we played in our youth.

A great mindfulness exercise offered by Tara Brach, a buddhist mediation teacher called

R. A.I.N. is useful when working with intense and difficult emotion. This practice gives us a clear

way to cut through the confusion and stress that comes with family gatherings. This acronym

helps to bring ourselves into the present moment without judgement. I’ll include a brief overview

here but recommend checking out Tara’s website for deeper exploration https://

It stands for:

Recognize - Recognize & just notice what is taking place

Accept/Allow life to be exactly as it is

Investigate your inner experience with kindness (sans self judgement)

Not Personalize or Non Identification - this is one small part of who you are and the

way we have been conditioned to react can be re imagined with consistent effort.

Other helpful tips to approach family gatherings this holiday are:

1. Routine Self Care - don’t forego your daily routines of self-fulfilling rituals. Have that cup of

coffee slowly in the morning. Go for your morning run. Take your 5 minutes to meditate. It’s

your anchor in the madness, don’t give it up during the time you need that stability the most.

2. Plan Ahead - when things get intense have an exit plan. You don’t have to stay and take

verbal abuse or be part of every argument you’re invited to. You have the right to make the

choice to walk away and get some fresh air. Planning ahead also means noticing before

things escalate and excusing yourself in an effort to show up to have a calm, collected

conversation. Planning ahead also means setting clear boundaries for yourself. If you know

5 hours is too much - show up for an amount of time that is tolerable for you. If 2 hours is

all you can do, have a plan beforehand to make a graceful exit.

3. Unconditional love and acceptance is our right. If our family members are incapable of giving

this to us we have the right to give it to ourselves by utilizing all of the above tools to

show that child part of ourselves the compassion we may have never or will never receive.

Once we are able to meet this need for ourselves, we can more easily give compassion to

others and meet them where they are with unconditional love and acceptance. We can agree

to disagree and still love each other. This is not typically a rule that families of dysfunction are

able to implement, but you can be the leader and model for your family new ways of being in

relationship with each other.

As a therapist and staunch advocate for mental health, I feel everyone can benefit from seeking

a therapist who can supply guidance and support through the holidays and ongoing. Someone

who provides an environment where you are able to heal old wounds through a positive,

reparative relationship with another. I provide such services and know several resources for all

budget types. Please feel free to contact me for guidance and resources at You can also find a good therapist in the area on


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