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Surviving a Dysfunctional Family Christmas

If you’ve ever caught a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond, you’ve witnessed a pretty good take on society’s view of the dysfunctional family. The meddling in-laws. The sibling rivalry. The petty arguing. Sitcoms bank on those kids of stereotypes because we can all usually relate to an extent.

But what if your family dysfunction isn’t funny? How do you cope during the holidays?

The counseling services department of Kansas State University describes a dysfunctional family as:

Any condition that interferes with healthy family functioning. Most families have some periods of time where functioning is impaired by stressful circumstances (death in the family, a parent’s serious illness, etc.). Healthy families tend to return to normal functioning after the crisis passes. In dysfunctional families, however, problems tend to be chronic and children do not consistently get their needs met. Negative patterns of parental behavior tend to be dominant in their children’s lives.

I come from some serious dysfunction. I grew up in a house where both of my parents struggled with mental illness. My dad struggled with depression, and my mother with bi-polar disorder. Neither of them ever stuck with treatment for those disorders. So I learned to walk on eggshells, because I never knew what could set off mass chaos in my house.

I vividly remember a Christmas when I was about 9 years old. I grabbed a gift with my name on it, and shook it. When I told my mom what I thought it was, she became extremely angry. She promptly grabbed the ornament-clad Christmas tree and threw it out the door. Back then, I didn’t understand that my mom had an illness that kept her from always acting rationally. I just thought I was a terrible child who caused my mom to react like that.

My husband, Matt, grew up with a father who was an alcoholic, and a mother who was co-dependent. His father was married before, and had a volatile relationship with his ex-wife. Not only did he deal with the mental aspect of family dysfunction and addiction, but there was physical abuse as well.

As you can imagine, we both have lingering issues that have affected us into adulthood. It is a constant fight to deal with our issues and try to break those chains of dysfunction.

It is encouraging to read the first chapter in Matthew—the lineage of Jesus. When you start to recognise the names, you remember that Jesus’ family had some significant struggles, as well.

It pretty easy to create space and boundaries and pursue health with those tough family relationships during the year, but then the holidays come around, and with them the expectation of family time. Holidays happen to be emotionally charged by nature, so it can be tricky to navigate family gatherings. I have a few ideas that have served us well over the years.

An Invitation Is Not a Summons

The first time I heard that phrase, I felt like a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I don’t have to attend a family gathering that will make me uncomfortable. It’s OK to opt out of a situation that either isn’t healthy, or you believe will cause more damage and bitterness than warm memories.

Don’t Participate in Drama

When someone we love is acting in a dysfunctional way, we have a choice. We can either choose to respond to the dysfunction in a way that perpetuates the issue, or in a way that extinguishes it.

For me, this usually comes in the form of a family member using manipulation to sway me to do something. I used to call it out on the carpet, which, in my situation, wasn’t helpful. The best choice I made is when I decided that I wouldn’t acknowledge it or give into it. When tactics don’t work, people stop using them. Boundaries don’t have to be loud. Sometimes inaction speaks louder than bullhorns.

Practice Forgiveness

I’ll admit right now, I struggle with forgiveness. Not because I want to hold onto bitterness and anger, but because I struggle with things in my adulthood because of how my childhood was. I’m working on it.

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Sometimes, just when I think I’ve forgiven someone—my mom in particular—something reminds me of those painful childhood days. As the memories flood back, so does the anger and hurt. Sometimes, forgiveness is a process. Deep wounds take a long time to heal. Don’t be discouraged if you find yourself needing to forgive something you thought you already forgave. It’s normal.

Keep Your Expectations in Check

We all have reasons why we do what we do. Expecting perfection from others will always leave you disenchanted. Allowing others to wrestle with their issues is OK. Look at the garden of Eden. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be. We are all disgruntled idealists to a extent.

Pray for Wisdom

James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

Sometimes, when it comes to tough relational issues, it’s hard to know the right thing to do. Mental illness, addiction, broken families etc., are all tough and confusing situations. I find so much comfort in knowing that if I ask for wisdom, He will give it to me generously.

As we approach Christmas, remember that you’re not alone. Abuse and dysfunction isn’t always obvious or talked about. A lot of the families in your life that seem “perfect” have their issues, too.

The story of Jesus—a baby Saviour with a lineage of broken, dysfunctional people—reminds us that goodness can come out of the deepest of wounds.

May you be reminded of the grace that came with the birth of Christ this Christmas!

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