Ah, Christmas! The time of year where we celebrate the birth of our Savior, eat unreasonable amounts of dessert and … revert back to acting like surly teenagers when spending time with extended family.

If the thought of returning home for the holidays fills you with a mix of anticipation and dread, you are not alone. We want to go home, but we don’t want to return to the same old patterns that have been around since we were kids. Most of us struggle at some level when we find ourselves back in the role of brother or sister, daughter or son. Here are a few things that might help you prepare for the trip home:

Be aware of invisible dynamics.

Each family operates with dynamics, that though invisible and usually unmentioned, are as real as the basement couch from 1991. Those dynamics include family conflict patterns, communication styles, and real and perceived judgment of our lifestyle, our relationships, our job, etc.

Here’s the truth about invisible dynamics: It takes two to tango. If you want things to be different this year, consider your contribution to the dynamic. If you tend to bristle under your older sister’s passive aggressive comments, prepare yourself to respond differently. Sometimes even a subtle shift in your response is enough to change the entire tone of the conversation.

Be sincere.

Nothing derails a meaningful moment faster than reverting to old patterns, particularly those that involve sarcasm or insults. The great hope of adulthood is that we are no longer who we once were. Even though those around us may still treat us like the 13-year-old kid they remember, we do not have to respond the way we were then. Romans 12:9 says, “Love must be sincere.”

One of the gifts we can give our family is to be sincere in receiving them for exactly who they are today. Give your little brother, grandfather and old neighbor the gift of receiving them with kindness and openheartedness and a sincere curiosity about the way they’ve changed and grown over the years.

Cultivate a relationship you wouldn’t normally prioritize.

If you have a hard time breaking out of the invisible dynamics of your close family members, consider pursuing a person in your extended family that you might tend to normally overlook or take for granted. Maybe this is the year to play cards with your uncle or sit with your grandmother after dinner. Ask them questions about their young adulthood. Ask questions about how life used to be.

When you give the gift of your attention to someone that you wouldn’t normally spend time with, you will grow stronger in your ability to bring that love and sincerity to those in your family that you struggle with.

Respond with Vulnerability.

The emotional layers and ruts of old relationship history can make us all act like actors in an old play, falling right back into the roles that we are used to playing. The Greek word for sincerity actually means “inexperienced in the art of acting.” If we want to act differently but others don’t seem to want to let us, we must show the vulnerable side of ourselves.

When your brother jokes with you about your weight, instead of responding by withdrawing to your room, you can choose to laugh it off, change the subject or respond with vulnerability by saying, “Hey, I don’t think you are trying to be mean, but that hurts.” 

The great thing about a family system is that it only takes one person to change the system. You can be the one who’s different this year. You can be the one who is changed and allows others to be changed. You can be the one pursuing sincerity and choosing vulnerability. You just might find that your family is surprisingly enjoyable.