How to Handle Your Dysfunctional Family Over the Holidays

Family can undoubtedly be amazing, selfless, and the support you need most. But, they can also be dysfunctional, petty, prone to arguing and lack understanding of you or your choices. Even if you’re in recovery, some family members may hold your past drug or alcohol abuse against you, or may harbor unresolved anger and resentment towards you and your choices. Addiction often breeds dysfunction, and this is especially true if other members of your family have their own battles with substance use disorders, even if they are currently in recovery.

No matter where you are on your road to recovery, spending time with dysfunctional family over the holidays can be stressful. You might be feeling less like you’re loved and more like you’d give anything for one more drink or one more hit to de-stress after spending a day in a room with extended family. But, it doesn’t have to be like that. By taking the time to plan out your holiday, you can ensure that you’re ready to handle dysfunctional family over the holidays.

Don’t Expect Approval

Everyone wants approval from those closest to them, and no matter what your situation, that likely hasn’t changed. But, if your family is dysfunctional, you likely won’t get it. Judgement, hurt and emotional withdrawal are all extremely common in dysfunctional families. If you’re recently sober, especially if no one else is, you may also find that family members treat you differently.

If you can walk in knowing that you can’t control what family members think, but also that it doesn’t affect you, you will be better off. Try to step back emotionally, even if it’s just to give someone time to come to terms with your recovery or your substance abuse.

Prepare Reasons and Excuses

If your family members are still drinking or using, even casually, spending time with them over the holidays can be extremely difficult. Not only will most use or drink in front of you, they will pressure you to join them. This is especially true if you used to drink together or otherwise enabled each other.

The other person will have difficulty facing you moving on, not because they don’t want you to be better, but because it reminds them that they aren’t. For this reason, many people can respond aggressively or angrily when told that you don’t drink, thinking that you’re trying to be better than them. It’s an irrational response, but one that is rooted in the social stigma of substance use.

Have “the Talk”

Whether you’ve had a talk with your family members about your recovery or not, you should have it again. Reminding extended family that you’re not drinking and why, even in a lighthearted manner, will work to prevent mishaps where you might have to say no to someone who doesn’t understand why you don’t want a drink.

If you haven’t told your family that you’re in recovery, you may be hesitant to do it before festivities, but it is better to get it out of the way. You should try to have the talk with everyone in the same room at least a few days before Christmas or New Year’s, but plan to discuss your recovery and why you’re in recovery. You can also address it from a personal standpoint, using phrases like, “I was drinking too much and it was interfering with my ability to be a good parent/to achieve my career goals,” etc., rather than simply saying that you were addicted.

Respect Boundaries and Create Your Own

Nearly everyone has boundaries. Dysfunction is typically created by trauma and repeated stress, and anything wrong in your family likely isn’t just because one or two members of your family are bad people. Chronic stress from poverty, abuse or work often result in drinking, anger problems and substance use. Diagnosed or undiagnosed mental problems make people irascible and difficult to deal with. And constant stress and worry can make many people paranoid and judgmental.

For example, if you’re dreading going home because you expect your mom to ask you to show her your arms and constantly make you show everything in your room or pockets, you can respect that she’s doing it for a reason. You could make a game out of it, and be proud to show her that you’re clean. Or if a family member is touchy about a certain subject, either don’t bring it up or determine how to address it in a way that isn’t hurtful.

Respecting that other people have boundaries, whether needing to be left alone, needing things done in a certain way, or expecting specific things of you can give you a better way to manage your family. It also gives you grounds to set your own boundaries. For instance, you can make the agreement that “I’ll show that I’m not using, but you can’t nag me about it constantly.”

Take Time Out

Family’s argue, things get tense, there are often a hundred things to do, and you may be left feeling overwhelmed, angry and depressed. Taking time out is an important part of keeping your cool and soothing triggers so you don’t relapse. Try to plan time out into your day, and make sure the rest of your family knows about it. Timeouts from family might include:

  • Attending daily AA meetings
  • Going to a sober party
  • Going to the gym or an exercise class
  • Going for a drive
  • Meditating or practicing yoga
  • Cleaning something like the basement or attic on your own

Time out without your family members will give you the time to calm down, de-stress, and decide how you feel about the day’s events so far so that you can give them a place and decide what to do about things that are stressful or hurtful.

Say “No”

Dealing with family members can be difficult, especially if you either feel guilty or pressured. Family members asking you to drink, shaming you, asking you to go to a bar or participate in a traditional toast can all be extremely difficult to resist. You should plan to say no, decide how to do it and do it when the need arises. Even if you’re saying no to participating in an argument or negative discussion, you are taking care of yourself by doing so.

Talk Where It’s Possible

Addiction and substance abuse are damaging to families and often hurtful to the people you love. Even if your family was already dysfunctional before substance abuse, addiction did not help. Taking the time to recognize where you might have hurt the people you love, what is needed from you and how you can help can go a long way toward fixing your family relationships.

If you can talk to a family member to apologize, offer to be there or talk about your recovery to attempt to get them into their own, you can make your and their life better.

Seek Out Family Therapy

Strong relationships are a foundation of recovery, because you need people you love to lean onto. While you probably can’t set up family therapy for your family before the holidays, you can talk to them about attending, discuss why you should go and try to get everyone to agree to work together to be happy. Therapy can help to solve tension, rebuild relationships and help family members see each other from different perspectives – most therapy also focuses on building conflict resolution and sharing skills, so that even families who habitually argue can learn to be together in a healthier and more constructive way.

Good luck and have fun spending time with your family over the holidays.


Brought to you by Lighthouse Treatment Center,  a Southern California Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Program.

Articles posted here are primarily educational and may not directly reflect the offerings at The Oaks. For more specific information on programs at The Oaks, contact us today.