How Therapists Deal With Their Own Family Issues At The Holidays

Mental health professionals share how they handle frustrating relatives, heated dinner conversations and more.

The holiday season is quickly approaching, which often means spending extended periods of time with family members — possibly even the ones you’ve spent most of the year avoiding.

If this sounds like you and your family, you are absolutely not alone. This can be an anxiety-inducing plight for many, including therapists who teach us how to deal with these problems in the first place.

“Therapists are real people too, and like everyone else, have to deal with complex family dynamics during the holidays,” said Anthony Freire, the clinical director and founder of The Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling in New York. “And the dynamics at play can sometimes intensify during the holidays, especially when it involves spending extended periods of time together.”

But this shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying the season. HuffPost chatted with therapists to learn how they handle their own family issues. Here’s their advice:

If it’s possible, try to abandon previous perceptions of family members

Olecia Christie, a certified life coach and owner of Optix Communications, said she tries to remember that her family members are in a constant state of becoming. You aren’t the same person you were last year or even last week; perhaps other people aren’t either.

“My family is constantly evolving. People are not the same little cousins I played with or the young sister I talked with for hours. We are now mothers and fathers,” she said. “We have seen tragedy, survived incredible loss, and grown through challenging circumstances.”

Christie suggested approaching your family with an open mind this holiday season. “This approach is incredibly freeing as it sets us up to accept our family no matter how they show up during the holidays,” she added.

Be open but protective of your mental health

While Christie believes in remaining open-minded, she also stressed the importance of staying aware of any negative emotions that may come up and their influence on you.

“I remain open, but I also protect my space by being true to who I am. I welcome opinions, but I ultimately determine their placement in my life,” she said.

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Control how you spend your time and with whom

Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, a licensed marriage and family therapist at The Zinnia Practice in California, said she divides some relatives into two groups. She said there are some family members that she’ll spend time with in small doses; then there are others she prefers to totally avoid.

“Some relatives are able to put their drama aside just for the holidays. Those relatives will get a visit from me, but only for a short time. I won’t have sleepovers or overseas trips with them. During the visit, we will be civil, we will smile, we’ll talk about how grateful we are to be healthy during the holidays and I will be vigilant,” she said. “Vigilance is important so that when they start being disrespectful, I will make a conscious effort to pack my bags and leave the social function.”

“There are certain relatives that just refuse to be civil towards me, and so my response is to avoid any type of altercation or negativity by staying away from such relatives,” she continued. “The holidays are a time of love, gratitude and joy. Any family member who refuses to provide the love, gratitude and joy that I desire does not get the honor of spending the holidays with me.”

Establish boundaries and don’t be afraid to enforce them

“It’s OK to let people know in advance what your boundaries are and what to expect if those boundaries are violated. Nobody is required to tolerate abuse or humiliation,” said Elise Hall, a licensed and independent clinical social worker in Massachusetts. That includes yelling or degrading comments made to you or to another family member, which is what Hall once experienced.

If you find yourself in a situation where your boundaries are being pushed or completely overlooked, don’t be afraid to remove yourself from the situation and find other activities to participate in instead.

“Maybe I can do friendsgiving with my friends that are [not traveling] for the holidays, maybe I can volunteer at a soup kitchen, or I can go home for part of the day and then go somewhere after where I feel more at peace,” added Avinashi Shivon Ramadhin, a licensed master social worker in New York.

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Don’t engage in discussions you know will lead to an unhealthy argument

When it comes to the holidays, Freire personally believes it’s best to avoid potentially explosive topics. However, if you do find yourself being pulled into a heated discussion, take a moment to ask yourself if it’s worth the argument.

“If you don’t engage, then the other party inevitably stops arguing. Try arguing with a rock; it won’t last very long,” Freire said.

This isn’t to say you should shove aside your emotions or beliefs over something you’re opinionated or passionate about. If a subject like politics does come up ― let’s face it, it usually does ― there are ways to mindfully navigate the conversation without sacrificing your values or your mental health.

Experts say you shouldn’t be afraid to state outright that you don’t want to discuss something. You can also pivot by saying something like, “We likely won’t agree on this topic based on our differing beliefs, but I’d love to chat about something else.” Pay attention to how your body is responding physically to a conversation. If you’re feeling stressed, you can always excuse yourself.

Turn down the volume

Another tip for preventing heated discussions from turning into full-blown arguments or physical altercations is simply keeping your voice steady.

“Keeping your voice down will often de-escalate arguments because people tend to match the volume and aggressiveness of their opponent’s voice. The louder and more aggressive you are, the more your opponent will try to match or even outdo you,” Freire said.

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Find a buffer or an ally

If you’re able to bring a friend or a partner to your family gathering, they could help you better manage tough moments. Hall suggested “letting them know what your concerns are, what you’re hoping the outcomes of the gathering will be, and lean on them for support.”

Ramadhin agreed, adding that a partner, sibling, cousin or friend can all be useful during times of distress and often can help you better navigate tense family situations.

Stay present

Christie said the biggest thing for her during family holidays is staying present and truly enjoying the positive things being offered by each family member.

“Most importantly, I approach the holidays with a carpe diem mindset,” she said. “I limit the energy I give to anything besides living in the moment. Time is a rare commodity, and when I have it with my family, despite our differences, I choose to focus on our similarities — we are family.”

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