5 Tips For Avoiding Family Holiday Drama

Ah, Christmas. A solemn, joyful time of year for Christians, where silent and holy nights are de rigueur and Norman Rockwell springs eternal in the collective unconscious of the American mind.  And then it happens…. You try–contrary to what conventional wisdom says about the subject–to go home again.

Now, let me state right up front that this article is not for those of you who can’t wait to fly home and reenact your own Currier and Ives Christmas in all your old haunts with all your cherished friends and relations. If this is you, then I wish you a Merry Christmas, a happy New Year, tons of figgy pudding in your stocking, and with that, I bid you a fond, holiday farewell until next year. No, this article is for the rest of you (you know who you are), who right about now are thinking that going to the local ice rink and lying down in front of the Zamboni machine may be preferable to putting up with one more Christmas of mom making “helpful” comments about your weight, dad getting more than his share of nog in the egg, your corporate attorney sister (aka “Little Miss Perfect”) telling you how she is glad that you are happy in your “little life,” your brother-in-law (the one that hit you up for $2,000 last Christmas for the Ostrich farm) asking you for money, or for that matter, Great Uncle Harold, who never tires of telling your twelve-year-old son the latest dirty jokes.

What can you do when going home for the holidays feels just a little too much like starring in your own, personal horror story, the kind where the hero/heroine (that would be you) barely escapes with his or her life, but not before suffering unspeakable, holiday-inspired trauma from the great beyond? How can you survive, or even (dare I hope?) enjoy your holiday in spite of the old wounds and present slights? Let the following five tips be your holiday survival guide.

1. Don’t Try to Solve the Unsolvable.

“Every year its the same thing.” Marylin complained to me in session, “My parents never see how awful my sister is to me. She is so petty and hurtful. I’ve tried to talk directly with her about it, but she always tells me I’m just too sensitive. When I ask my folks to give me some support, they just tell me they wish I could be more like her. They have always treated her better than me as long as I can remember. What can I do to make them see how much they’ve hurt me?”

There is a prayer that asks God to give us the courage to change what can be changed, the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. Now might be a good time to dust that prayer off. Generally speaking, when someone is acting in an offensive way toward you, the direct approach is the best approach. But if that person has been treating you the same obnoxious way since you were five, chances are you are not going to solve the problem this year, or any year for that matter, regardless of how direct or indirect you are about it. And the sooner you accept this hard fact, the happier you are going to be.

When it comes to longstanding problems with family members you only have two healthy choices available to you. If the ongoing offense is too terrible an affront to either your personal dignity (e.g., abusive language or physical violence) or to your sense of moral well-being (e.g., open and unrestrained hostility toward your faith and beliefs), then your best bet may be to simply skip the family shindig this year and concentrate on starting your own traditions. On the other hand, if the ongoing offense is not quite so serious, I would recommend that you do your best to grin and bear it. Remind yourself that you are a grown-up, and that while these people are an important part of your past, they can only play the part in your present and future that you see fit to allow. True, you may feel like a three-year-old in their presence, but the fact is, you are in charge now. If you can remember this, you will be able to find the maturity to practice the spiritual work of mercy known as “bearing wrongs patiently” and perhaps even find some wisdom in the age-old Catholic practice of “offering it up.”

2. You Don’t Have to Save Your Family from Themselves.

I recently read a case study of a man who was dreading going home for the holidays because of his mother’s excessive drinking. His therapist asked him to imagine getting the following note in his mailbox. “Dear Charles, I wanted you to know that for the rest of her life, your mother is going to be an alcoholic and remain completely oblivious to anyone’s efforts to help her. Love, God.”

Charles reported that even though the therapist’s words shocked him at first, he realized that barring some major miracle–a miracle that was beyond his ability to produce–his mother was indeed going to have a problem for the rest of her life. While this saddened him, he also realized that for the first time he could go home with some peace, because it wasn’t his job to save her.

People often tell me that they dread going home again because they feel it is their job to save their family, to be the witness that lead them all to Christ, or at least witnesses that stop the family from killing each other. If this is you, I want you to repeat after me, “I am not the family Messiah. I am not the family Messiah, I am not….”

Yes, when you are around your family you must conduct yourself in a manner that makes you proud of your own behavior, but stop trying to play the prophet or putting yourself, your mate, or your kids on display so that the rest of the family will see your light and follow you to Midnight Mass. That is simply more pressure than anyone can stand, and it will make everyone around you (especially your mate and children) despise you. No one likes a self-righteous prig, even at Christmas. The best way to be a light is not by being perfect, but by being peaceful. Do whatever it takes to maintain your calm and take excellent care of your own mate’s and children’s emotional well-being. Leave your family to their own devices. If you can manage this, maybe, just maybe, someone in the family will one day come to you and ask, “What’s your secret for staying so calm in the middle of all this insanity?” But before this can happen (perhaps a hundred years from now) you will have to practice becoming a credible witness to your family by being a peaceful, sane person whose faith–as St Francis de Sales says faith must be–is attractive.

3. Don’t Play the Game.

Certain people like to play a party game therapists call, “Let’s you and him fight.” That’s where somebody puts two people with violently divergent opinions in the same room, raises a hot topic, and then stands back at a safe distance to watch the fireworks.

There are political, religious, and personal versions of this game. Your job is to avoid this game at all costs, because there are no winners, only losers. If you play, you will end up looking like one of the reject guests for a holiday episode of Jerry Springer. Remind yourself that these arguments are really not going to convince anyone about anything and that, in fact, you are being set up, merely for the amusement of another person(s). Resist the temptation to fight.  Instead, if you know you are going to a place where you openly disagree with everything that is being said, focus all your energies on making polite conversation, or alternatively, heading to the buffet table and stuffing your mouth full of the driest cookies you can find so that you couldn’t say something inflammatory even if you wanted to.

Of course this does not mean that you cannot answer sincere questions asked by the more honest members of your family. Just remember that people asking sincere questions about spiritual, emotional, or political issues do not often do so with a smirk on their face and twenty other people looking on. If the situation is the latter, you are being set up.

4. Know When to Say When

Know when to call it a night (or morning, or early afternoon) and make sure you have a nice safe hotel to run to when things start getting to you. There is nothing wrong with beating a hasty retreat when you feel that you can’t take it anymore. Find an excuse to bug out whenever you need a break (something like, “I’m sorry, I suddenly began experiencing stabbing pains through my entire body” usually does the trick.) You can always come back later, after you have cooled down. And if anyone is offended by you keeping a separate domicile, just tell them you were trying to inflict yourself on them as little as possible. They probably won’t admit it to your face, but chances are, they will be as relieved as you are.

5. Pray.

This is the most obvious, but also the most important. But if you pray, please ask God to give you the grace to be a sane credible witness, BEFORE you pray for the conversion and sanity of the rest of your family. Remember, as St, Francis said, it is much more important to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved, to consol than to be consoled. The paradox is, the more you practice these virtues, the more respect you will be afforded by those around you. Pray that God would change you first.

These five tips probably won’t be the source of any great holiday miracle, but they just may stop you from impaling yourself on a sprig of holly at the thought of seeing “those people” for yet another holiday.

And sometimes, that is miracle enough.


For more information on handling those delicate situations in your extended family, check out God Help Me, These People Are Driving Me Nuts!  Making Peace with Difficult People.

New Study Finds Parental Conflict/Lack of Affection Impairs Brain Development in Teens

Once again, research shows that parenting styles directly impact brain development and predict the likelihood of emotional problems in adolescence and adulthood.

Image: Shutterstock.

Image: Shutterstock.

New research finds that those who experience relatively common family problems early in childhood have an increased risk of mental health issues later on.The study is one of the first to look at relatively common family problems–typically mild to moderate in severity–and tie these up to changes in the brain’s development (Walsh et al., 2014).

Brain imaging data from the teenagers at between 17 and 19 found that those who had experienced problems in the early years, like significant tension between their parents or lack of affection, had a smaller cerebellum.

The cerebellum is an area of the brain associated with learning new skills and regulating stress, amongst other things.

This could be a marker of psychological problems later in life as a small cerebellum has been consistently linked to serious mental disorders. READ MORE

To discover parenting approaches that facilitate healthy brain development in your children, check out Parenting with Grace:The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids and Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First 3 Years of Parenthood.

This is Your Brain on Religion. Any Questions?



New research support the notion that religious faith is a neurological imperative of being human.

a new study shows through functional MRI scans that such religious and spiritual experiences can be rewarding to your brain.
They activate the same reward systems between your ears as do feelings of love, being moved by music and even doing drugs, according to the study, which was published in the journal Social Neuroscience on Tuesday.
“These are areas of the brain that seem like they should be involved in religious and spiritual experience. But yet, religious neuroscience is such a young field — and there are very few studies — and ours was the first study that showed activation of the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain that processes reward,” said Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, a neuroradiologist at the University of Utah and lead author of the study.  READ MORE

The Good Samaritan:  Not Just a Good Neighbor

A guest post by Pastoral Solutions Clinical Counselor, Dave McClow, M.Div., LMFT, LCSW.

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Providence is a powerful force—it’s God’s invisible hand guiding our lives.  I experience Providence in different ways.  Most frequently it happens on the phone with my clients when a story or metaphor comes to mind that I don’t normally use, and it hits home in a way I could not have possibly planned.  It happens in used-book stores (one of my vices).   I will find a book or an author on a topic I have just discovered and want to explore.  Or in this instance, I found in my library, from three different sources, something new on the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Fr. Michael Gaitley’s 33 Days to Merciful Love, Bishop Robert Barron’s sermon, and Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth all interpreted this parable as a beautiful metaphor for God’s mercy.  So I got the message, and an article was inspired!

In my pastoral counseling practice, I have many perfectionists.  They are always working hard to do all the right things, yet are never quite sure what the right things are, thus finding themselves in an unsolvable dilemma.  They work to be loved and feel they are only as good as their last performance.  When they contact me, they are exhausted and suffering in their relationships, including their relationship with God.  But our behavior can’t make God love us any more than he already does.  We don’t work for love, we work from it (1 Jn 4:19).  They have reversed what our faith teaches and bought into a heresy called Jansenism.

Whenever I would hear the Good Samaritan parable, I would focus on what I was supposed to do, missing the very rich message of God’s mercy.  But with this new interpretation, the Holy Spirit has been bringing some clients to tears and all to a deeper appreciation of his love and mercy.

The Parable and Interpretation

A man was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho.  The first surprise from the early Church fathers is, this is man’s journey from the “heavenly city” to “sin city”—he is walking away from God.  He is beaten, stripped, robbed, and left half-dead—this is original sin.  The priest and Levite, both schooled in the law and the prophets, pass by and are of little help to man in original sin.

Then along comes an outcast, a half-breed, a Samaritan.  He simply responds to the wounded man without being asked.  But this Samaritan is not just a good neighbor—he is Jesus!  As a good father, Jesus is always drawn to the woundedness of his children, even the woundedness of sin: “where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rom.5:20).  St. Therese’s little way makes a similar point.  Her doing little things with great love is only half of the story.   The other half is to live as spiritual children; we must stay little—we must acknowledge our faults, hurts, wounds, and sins to God—to open the floodgates of love and mercy towards us.  St. Faustina puts an exclamation point on this.  Regarding hardened sinners, she says, “These souls have a right of priority to My compassionate Heart, they have first access to My mercy”! (Diary, 1541)  In his merciful love, Jesus pours wine—the blood of Christ!—on the wound.  He puts all the love in the universe into that wine and pours it into our woundedness for healing.  Pause and reflect on that: all the love of the universe penetrating your wounds.  Then comes the oil, tying in four more sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders.

Jesus carries us to the inn.  Imagine you are in the arms of Jesus, being carried, half-dead in sin—some of your own making, some done to you—to a place of help.  You can rest in his arms.  In another surprise, the inn is the Church, the hospital for sinners.  The inn keeper might be a priest, family member, or friend who helps you through a dark time in your life.

Psychologically we desperately need another to initiate loving us, and we need to be loved despite our faults and sins so we can feel loved and secure.  Thankfully, our Papa obliges us on both counts!  He initiates, and our sin does not have the power to stop him from loving us.  He can’t stop being who he is—love!  His love, in both forms, is clear in this parable, as well as in the story of our Abba’s pursuit of Adam and Eve after the fall and in Jesus’ pursuit of us, taking on our humanity.  He is a good father!  When my perfectionistic clients experience this, they work less for love and more from love.

The Ultimate Challenge

Up until recently, I had always and only heard this parable as a challenge to be a good neighbor, and I’ve always had a hard time living up to it!  Now we have the rest of the story:  the Good Samaritan is Jesus!  He always pursues us, even when we don’t ask for it—even in our sins.  We must receive the Good Samaritan’s love and mercy first, or we have nothing to give away (1 Jn 4:19).   And then our response to this love is repentance—going beyond the mind we have now/giving up the lies we believe about God or ourselves—and then going to confession.  This is followed by The Ultimate Challenge: to be that good neighbor or the inn keeper in a world where everyone is wounded by something!  Be like Jesus—be a good spiritual father in a dark and lonely world!