Help me enjoy my family this christmas!
December 21, 2008 2:29 PM   Subscribe

What techniques can you use to avoid falling into the family dynamic trap? By that I mean, for the first few hours/days everything's fine with parents and siblings, my identity is intact, but soon after, somehow, we're all playing the same parts we always played (we've all flown the nest)... I find it annoying how I find it difficult to rise above this. ie. feeling intimidated by my older brother, oddly belittled by my younger brother ignored by parents. I'm sure I'm a rather oversensitive middle child but I'm pretty sure I'm not the only factor! This year I am determined to enjoy my Christmas without the family dynamics crap. We're all old enough for this not to be a problem, surely? Futile perhaps, but maybe with your rather general advice I may be able to make inroads!
posted by yowza to Human Relations (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Make up a script for the scenarios that scare you most, and stick to it when/if you get confused.

For example, my pre-made script for my mother lamenting the Obama election and making racist remarks is "I can't talk about this right now. I can't talk about this right now." ad infinitum.

Also, I would recommend taking some time for yourself during your visit. Even a walk can help clear the air.
posted by mynameisluka at 2:35 PM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Keep your opinions to yourself and play the part they want you to play just to keep the peace. Just when you think "screw this, I can't take this anymore. I'm going to say this and damn the consequences", that's the time not to say anything.

It will kinda suck, but it's a recipe for a "nice Christmas".
posted by dydecker at 2:41 PM on December 21, 2008

I drink heavily. A few crown & cokes and everything has a nice fuzzy patina. Helps keep it mellow.
posted by wfrgms at 2:59 PM on December 21, 2008 [6 favorites]

I think dydecker is completely wrong.

However, Christmas is not the time for confrontation. If someone is picking on you, disengage. If someone says something racist, sexist, or otherwise-ist that you cannot stand to hear, change the subject without responding, or find something fascinating in the other room. I've dealt with my dad this way now for five years, and it works.

At other times of the year, when people are not so emotionally charged and read to accuse one another of "ruining everything," feel free to say, "When you do X thing, it makes me feel picked on, and I'd rather you not do that any more." In the case of *-ist comments, I have to say, most of the time you are not going to win that battle, so unless you are really, really interested in converting someone, I'd just walk away. To be clear - you are not giving up, and you are not being passive - it's an active thing to remove yourself and people DO notice. It takes time. I've managed to get my dad to stop picking on me (mostly) and to (mostly) stop saying ridiculously racist things around me, but there is no such thing as 100% success in some cases.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:00 PM on December 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

Get out of the house. Go grocery shopping, visit family friends, go light-peeping, whatever it takes. We fall into our old roles when we have nothing else to do but fall into them. If you can do something (alone or with siblings) that is new or out of the ordinary, you won't have as much chance to revert to when you were a teenager.
posted by gyusan at 3:07 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Upon arrival, after requisite greetings/salutations, offer either verbally or by note: "Older brother, please do nothing to intimidate me," "Younger brother, please do not oddly belittle me," "Parents, please do not ignore me."

There is no such thing as an "oversensitive middle child." I know because I have one (contradiction?). Redundant, maybe. Just leave it at "child."

And follow gyusan's advice. As my husband says, "Family, everyone's got to have one" or in our cases two or three . . .
posted by emhutchinson at 3:22 PM on December 21, 2008

My last few Christmases have been thoroughly ruined by my verbally/physically abusive younger siblings, which sounds like a joke but it's not.

When there's so much family dynamics at play, I don't think there's any such thing as a 'Nice Christmas' per se. Either you rise to the bait, or you be the better person and disengage, and have them keep on trying to torment you and get a rise for the rest of your stay- if anything because they don't have anything better to do.

That being said, my recipe for a 'nice Christmas' is to not respond to abuse, to keep my visit short and sweet, and to get a nice Christmastime drunk on that makes me just not care.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:23 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

This year I am determined to enjoy my Christmas without the family dynamics crap.

Since you can't prevent them from doing the stuff they do I think your best bet is to be determined to enjoy your Christmas despite the family dynamics crap.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:27 PM on December 21, 2008

You're already intellectually aware of the problem. The real trick is to maintain that awareness in the moment (easier said than done). When you catch a sibling falling into one of those stereotypical roles you'd prefer to avoid, react with your head instead of your gut (again, easier said than done) and say something like "you know, now that we're adults, I'd really like to get past the way we related to each other as kids, and have a grown-up friendship with you."

As to your parents ignoring you, I'm not sure what to say. It's hard to respond to an absence of something.
posted by adamrice at 3:28 PM on December 21, 2008

It might be too late this year to implement this solution, but it's a simple one: only visit for one overnight.

How to do this depends on the particulars of your own life. But for the past 18 years, I've never stayed more than one overnight with my family, due to things like work, having to also visit at an SO's family, planning a vacation elsewhere with friends or SO, having too much to fit in over the holidays (theater tickets, last-minute shopping, visiting friends, New Year's plans).

If you're currently staying for more than 2 days, you may have to taper it down till they get used to it, but really, there's no reason for an adult to be forced to take an unwelcome vacation with difficult people for more than 24 hours.
posted by xo at 3:49 PM on December 21, 2008 [6 favorites]

I have a similar problem. My family gets very hard to deal with after a few hours and we fall into that pattern. I generally end family gatherings (holidays, birthdays, vacation, etc) feeling annoyed, bitter, and rather depressed. I hate it, because I genuinely love my family.

What I've been trying to do as of late is breathe! I try to take time for myself to think and just relax, which is easier when the gatherings are at my house. I also try to spend time cleaning the kitchen, washing dishes, etc, because it keeps me from seething too much when things get rough.

On a final note, I try to remember that they won't always be there, so I should treasure them and our somewhat annoying relationship while I still can.
posted by firei at 4:01 PM on December 21, 2008

Do you have a significant other or close friend you could bring? I find that if an "outsider" is present, people in my family behave like pretty decent adults. It's only when it's just us that we all revert to the old family dynamics crap.

I actually make it a point not to be alone in a room with family members; I stick to Hubby like bubble gum for the duration of the visit. About the only time I'm more than an arm's length from him is when one of us is in the bathroom. Although Hubby is part of the family in one sense, he didn't grow up in that house so he's enough of an outsider to keep everybody acting like grownups.
posted by Quietgal at 4:08 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

My mother still tries to control me, and I am 51 years old. When she scolds me, I mutter to myself silently "I am 51 yo, I am 51 yo," and I ignore her attempts to correct my behavior. I'm a good actress and I try to see this as an important role-- playing the part of "The Dutiful Daughter," and then I have a good laugh about it with my SO. With my mother I try to be patient, caring, and v. v. interested in everything she says. Above all, I DO NOT ROLL my eyes-- much as I want to.

With the fundie in-laws, it is the same thing-- I play the part of a lovely daughter-in-law who absolutely adores their son (the last part is true so it is easy to portray.) I try to smile as much as possible and look like I am having a good time. The SO and I duck outside the house together every half hour or so so that he can have a smoke and then we check the time. We always arrive with an unbreakable time limit and that becomes our mantra during the visit, "We are leaving at 8:30-- 2 hours and 10 minutes to go." We always look forward to the drive home so that we can dissect the entire visit under our (overly critical) microscope.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:24 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Damn you guys that's so 19__!" Or "Man, how old are you now? Stop being an idiot." Or just try and make a joke out of whatever they're saying. Agree with them that you're an idiot or that your whatever. Haha they're so funny. Yawn. Act bored. They'll grow tired of picking on you. Or better yet just ignore whatever they're doing to piss you off and change the subject. Read a book. Don't leave though, especially in a huff. That's what they want and they'll just plan a new attack for when you come back. Don't give them that kind of satisfaction. As childish as it it, they're still just trying to push your buttons because they think it's funny. They've probably been doing it your whole life because you let them. Stand up to the bullies, because that's what they are, and stop the cycle. You just gotta rise above, man. If you show you've moved on and can't be bothered with their immature BS then maybe they will too.

As for your parents, they can't ignore you if you ask them questions and engage them in conversation. And if they do then call them on it. Maybe they don't realize they're doing it. Maybe you didn't get along with them during the teenage years and they don't know how to interact with you anymore. It happens. Make an effort to make friends with your parents and it might just be the best Christmas gift they receive. And be sure to not just talk about yourself.
posted by wherever, whatever at 4:33 PM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Boycott family christmas. It's not worth the effort.
posted by pompomtom at 4:49 PM on December 21, 2008 [9 favorites]

Self escalating mutually reinforced feedback loops of undesirable behavior leave everyone feeling icky. Sometimes you don't know how to make it stop, whether you seem to be the bully or the victim at the moment. These dynamics have lives of their own, and they have two weaknesses: intention and non-sequitor.

Decide what it is that you DO want, and respond not to the behavior of the other, but the content of what they talk about. A non-sequitor at the right moment can interrupt a bad cycle, and you can even prepare an amusing or entertaining one beforehand. Focus not on what it is you don't like, but rather what you want from the situation (and, also, what they want, which may be something other than "make you feel like crap").
posted by idiopath at 4:59 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Family dynamics, schmamily dynamics - I solve my issues with copious amounts of booze.

But seriously, I limit myself to 4 days at home, including days I'm traveling to and fro, and I get out of the house at night. This helps considerably. I used to try the direct confrontation tactic, which only ended in tears for everyone else, so now I take deep breaths, smile, and think about how life is short, etc.
posted by squorch at 5:07 PM on December 21, 2008

You are not going to overcome a lifetime of associations, cues and reactions that were formative to your brain during a visit home. Nthing those who say keep it short, breathe and try to remind yourself that you are no longer a child and that these feelings will pass.

Sometimes, if you respond differently than you typically do, other people will respond differently as well-- but sometimes not. So just try to remain aware that you are playing out an old script, that these "feelings aren't facts" and try to consider how they may see things and whether you are responding to them now or to them in the past, also. Take a break if you feel like you are "reacting" before you can think about what you really feel and want.

Also, consider the role of your perceptions. To take an overly literal example, if you say something to Mom and feel like she's "ignoring you" consider that her hearing might not be so great now, and that might be why she didn't respond. Don't interpret things in light of the past pattern reflexively, basically-- and when you find yourself doing that, question it.
posted by Maias at 5:12 PM on December 21, 2008

Way too much good advice here.

Adjust everyone's perception: acquire a full-blown Furry outfit and get some help online developing a furry persona, get your SO a really great outfit also. When family 'stuff' starts, just purr or hiss. If your parents ignore you, lick them.
posted by sammyo at 6:02 PM on December 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

And after you've done what sammyo suggests, deny having ever been there and act like they're imagining things.

Completely nonsequitur surrealist humor can really have its place.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:09 PM on December 21, 2008

The whole sammyo and dunkadunc scenario sounds good.

My first advice: there is now law that says you have to go home for holidays, birthdays, etc. Certainly not every year.

Second - what everyone said about just faking it and being evasive, and finding ways to get out and walk or buy more eggnog.

Third - Are there children? Children are a great buffer and, as an evil twisted bonus, bonding with the children and grandchild or people who have a low opinion of you is a wonderfully ironic revenge. Seriously, if there is anyway you can bake or play or go on outings with the youngsters and the moody teens, you will be safe while they're around.

If you have your own children, and the family dynamic extends to a sour attitude toward them, my advice is that it's not to late to book a trip to the other side of the state.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:34 PM on December 21, 2008

We can't pick the family we grew up in, but we can pick our friends. Spend time over the holidays with friends you like, who like you, and who relate to you as adult human beings. If they don't happen to be in ye olde home towne, so much the better. When your family members don't treat you well, spend time with better folks. Seriously.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:02 PM on December 21, 2008

I think it all depends on what you want to do. It sounds too late to say "You know, I think I'm going to sit this year out because I'm just too tired from (insert excuse here) to make it out there. Maybe we can get together New Year's? (depending on distance)"

Since it sounds like you're not interested in potentially raising some hell and calling people out on their shitty behavior, you've got to figure out what the best coping strategy is for you. Some people drink the relatives away. Some people just stop the conversation right when something unpleasant happens (I'm a big proponent of this because it has them have to ask you what the deal is and you can tell them flat out why you just got up and left the room). Other people just do everything they can to avoid any situation which might be awkward. Whatever mechanism you choose to use, you have to be able to stick to it and stick to it consistently. No one's going to change anything if you don't keep to your "scripted actions".

Something I do when my family makes really shit remarks I either don't agree with or have no interest in entertaining is I pull out my cell phone and text people (or, at least, fake texting someone). It might make me an asshole, but it can give me an excuse to leave the room and send a clear message I'm not down for their topic of conversation (my grandmother is a rather homophobic and racist individual and can get going -- as an aside).
posted by Gular at 7:19 PM on December 21, 2008

Try thinking about ways to break your own patterns. Like, if you normally sulk/go off by yourself when your parents ignore you, if you notice yourself doing that (or starting to feel the way that you feel when that is happening), instead try going up to where they are and offering to help with what they're doing or joining the conversation. If you tend to react verbally to your brothers, try looking into the middle distance and saying a vague "mmmmm" when they start to rile you up. Or whatever, the point is to think of how you react externally to them in patterned ways, and try to plan out new (hopefully socially productive) patterns that you can do instead. Don't get to fancy, though. "Having the perfect comeback" is not a good plan for changing your behaviour, because those are not easy to come by. But if you can think and plan some actions that might neutralize what is happening, then you can retain a sense of control over the situation and also shake up the patterns and cause your family to react to you in new ways.

This action assumes that your family are basically reasonable people who love/like each other, and that the negativity you're finding comes from habitual patterns and not bad intent.
posted by carmen at 7:46 PM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

It seems like a lot of people here assume that this experience is inevitable, so their advice is about avoidance or coping practices. But I'd like to suggest that it is, in fact, possible for people to change. Maybe the rest of your family even feels the same way you do! I've dealt with this over the years in two ways:

First, I make a joke out of the obvious stuff, which the rest of the family generally picks up on (so, yes, my youngest sibling is the favorite, he gets the most Christmas presents, my sister counts them every year (again, jokingly) and it's always true -- but it's funny, these days, because honestly, my mom doesn't do it on purpose and she's really embarrassed every year that it has happened again, and ultimately who cares if he got an extra chocolate bar in his stocking?). Humor defuses bitterness remarkably well, especially if people can laugh at themselves.

Second, I have had serious conversations, one-on-one. It helps to know that my mom also thinks my sister is acting crazy when she does her crazy things; equally, it helps to say to my sister "hey, when you do X, I feel Y" (thanks, sixth grade peer counseling classes). Believe it or not, we have all changed many of our negative behaviors thanks to conversations like these (and on occasion they've happened as a whole family).

I guess third, please don't be the person who says "you've ruined everything." Because it seems to me that if you do, you're the person who really did the ruining.
posted by obliquicity at 8:01 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Simply limit your exposure. Sounds like you're fine for 3-5 hours worth, so limit it to that. Figure out when you get the most bang for your time (Say, 4-9 in the evening) and only spend that amount of time there. If you live close, just go home. Otherwise get a hotel room near by and spend the rest of the time by the pool.

I think my brother for introducing me to this. Both of us would go out of our way to either avoid family time or soak in it and suffer. But we've taken it in our hands and, ironically, spend more time with the fam. It's not rude "well, time's up, Bob's an ass and Kelly's a controlling wench, I'm out of here." kind of thing, it's all good natured and frankly a lot of fun. No one is offended but now they respect our limits. Stake claim to your time and your boundaries. No one else will do it for you.
posted by Ookseer at 9:16 PM on December 21, 2008

I successfully broke out a recurring pattern with my sister, who kept trying to recreate our teenage relationship angst.

For about a year, at every family gathering, whenever she said anything antagonistic, or spiteful, or asked a leading question to get a rise out of me, I replied "Oh, why do you say that?". I tried very hard to keep my tone even, not quite flat, but more of a polite "I'm asking but I don't really care what the answer is". At least a quarter of the time it was a bit of a non-sequitor response, which didn't seem to matter. And whatever her reply was, my response was "Oh. Mmm.", not quite whole words, again in a polite yet distant tone. And then I'd walk away, or change the subject, or invite someone else into the conversation. It took a little practice but I was soon doing it easily.

After about a year, she stopped talking to me unless it was to ask me to pass the salt. And then about 6 months after that, she started having normal adult conversations with me, same as she had with her husband and friends.

The trick to it is that if they had to actually explain *why* they're saying something rude or provacative, their honest answer would have to be "to annoy you", "because I'm jealous", or something stupid like that. So they automatically lie, make up some daft excuse or change the subject. It gets to be too much work for them to make the comments, and eventually they break the habit.

This assumes that they don't actually dislike you, it's just bad habits keeping them doing it. It sort of acts like a circuit-breaker, and then you can start fresh.
posted by harriet vane at 9:21 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pick one sentence, and have it ready. Whenever you get the typical behavior, use the sentence. Even if you have to say it 20 times. Pretend you are at a press conference and your lawyer has told you to follow one script and not to veer off of it.

Honestly, when my siblings start to try and get a rise out of me with something they say, my reply is simply "OK", said in a very plain, slightly disinterested tone. Baffles the hell out of them and very hard to argue with.
posted by agentwills at 6:42 AM on December 22, 2008

fascinating responses. everyone on metafilter is so self-aware! i like it.
posted by beccyjoe at 7:14 AM on December 22, 2008

Actually the only way not to be bothered by your parents and your relationship with them during Christmas time (or the remaining time of the year) is to pretend that you've been suffering brain injuries in an accident and that you've lost all memories of who they are (you could also pretend that you've been killed in the accident but I think it's trickier). You could also move to the depths of a Rainforest for a while. Or maybe take care of their car brakes a few days before Christmas. What about offering them some vouchers for an analysis with a good therapist ? Just ideas !

(Your question just makes me nervous)
posted by nicolin at 7:21 AM on December 22, 2008

I'd like to second Harriet V, obliquicity, and Carmen's advice here. I think the first step is admitting that you are probably complicit in the dynamic, even if you left that out of your description. And the second step is, as the most self-aware person around, to simply try to behave rationally when the BS starts flying. But DONT avoid the situation and DONT just play nice.

As an intimidating and critical older brother, it has helped me in recent years when my youngest sister got old enough to point out that my jokes were often belittling more than amusing. It was (and remains) an unintentional byproduct of dealing with an asshole parent who is no longer around, and as sad as it is that I need to be reminded not to be a dick, it doesn't ruin Christmas for someone to say, "Don't be a dick, PA." On the other hand, my middle sister has to be reminded not to take stuff so seriously when people criticize her. The more everyone brings up conflicts and breaks the mute role fulfillment of our teenage horror years, the more fun we actually have being together. I even choose to visit them sometimes! Of course, the whiskey helps too. A lot.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:23 AM on December 22, 2008

Set out with the intention to BE the spirit of Christmas with your family. With all the above suggestions put into play.

Then set the alarm on your cell phone to go off at random times during the night, each time will a different message, reminding yourself of the evenings goals. It could have messages of Smile, Breathe, Make a Joke, Let Go of the Past, Change the Subject.

My cell phone has become my guru with these reminders. Works wonders.
posted by Vaike at 11:48 AM on December 22, 2008

Then set the alarm on your cell phone to go off at random times during the night, each time will a different message, reminding yourself of the evenings goals. It could have messages of Smile, Breathe, Make a Joke, Let Go of the Past, Change the Subject.

Calendar events? That's super cool and I think I'm going to use that.
posted by Gular at 8:39 PM on December 23, 2008

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