How To Stay (Mostly) Sane When Family Visits Make You Crazy

Yay! The holidays are here and everywhere, people with some level of Childhood PTSD are facing the prospect of returning home.

Let’s say you’ve escaped a childhood that contained abuse, neglect, and exposure to parental violence and addiction, and let’s say now you’re living happy and free as a grown-up.

You get an e-mail. It’s your mother. She wants to know if you are coming home for Thanksgiving and you say yes, of course, and you jump right online and book a $400 plane ticket. And then… the remorse sets in.

I personally love the holidays now, but in the past, Thanksgiving and Christmas were hyper-charged emotional roller-coasters that took me high with expectations, then low with sadness and rage, then scared of a fight breaking out, then energized by a crisis and ultimately depressed and empty.  Round and round I’d go, with lots of gloopy carbs to keep it going.

I was miserable and complained for months after each visit about things that had been said, my hurt feelings, the injustice of it all…

And then one day I realized that basically, no one was doing this to me.

Except me, that is. I was doing this to myself.

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So I figured out how to stop making myself miserable and even to love the holidays. If you want peace too, here’s my advice when visiting family:

  1. OWN your decision to visit family members, or to invite them to your house. It’s incredibly common for Childhood PTSD-types like me to face holidays with a sense of dread about seeing family, feeling like a trapped victim and struggling to calm the tension between people. But unless you’re a child, very old or severely disabled, you always have a choice about where you spend your time, and with whom. So you can say no to family visits. If you can’t handle the interactions without hurting people, you should say no. If you do choose to pay a visit to your family, take responsibility for this and refrain from blaming others (when it comes right down to it) for being themselves.
  2. Be kind and polite! There is actually no such thing as a toxic person, only toxic reactions to people. Even if a family member is cruel, drunk or trying to stir up a fight, you can still neutralize your negative reactions. If you can stay neutral, you will be amazed how differently everything can go. Don’t fear that you are condoning bad behavior, just because you’re not participating in screaming matches.
  3. Limit your time in situations that stress you. Fear and stress will prompt harsh reactions to little things, which hurts people and leads you to trouble. If you know that certain people/situations are tough for you, try limiting contact to 10 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever you like, so you have a way to step back and calm down if the need arises. If you need some extra help for “cooling down,” you can try my technique. 
  4. Avoid unnecessary conflicts (without anyone knowing you’re doing it). There’s a time and a place to express yourself and set the record straight with those who have wronged you. A big family holiday is probably not that time and place! If you’ve chosen to be part of the festivities, and you want to have a good day, make a decision to stay out of conflict with folks. Here’s a handy method I learned during my divorce from my kids dad (we’d been having terrible fights every time we spoke):

    Don’t respond to words/actions that trigger you
    Don’t let people know you are not responding (because that triggers them). I goes like this:


  5. Get over any ideas of how your family “should” be. You grow up seeing families on TV, or watching friends enjoy close and supportive family relationships, and you can’t help but compare your own family to theirs. True, you don’t have that kind of family and true, your life might’ve been different if you had,  and you grieve. I could remind you that some people have it worse than you, and that some people are hiding problems as bad as yours, blah blah blah — but that doesn’t take away the fact that coming from a broken, crazy family sometimes just plain SUCKS. So accept it. Feel bad about it for a while (chances are you’ve already felt bad long enough) and start to build your life from where you are. It’s incredibly freeing when you realize that all people are different, all people have problems, and wishing otherwise ain’t worth a hill o’ beans. Love people as they are or keep your distance — whatever you please. But stop making mental adjustments to “improve” them in your mind and then resenting them for not being what you hoped.
  6.  Remember, it’s a holiday for everyone else too. Yes, the holidays are sometimes a beautifully decorated hot poker that probes the human heart for depression, disappointment and loneliness, and yes, we get burned sometimes. So consider taking the focus off yourself and lending your friendly support to the person in the room who looks sad or lonely. If this is all you did during the whole holiday visit, you’d have a pretty good holiday.
  7. For goddsakes, don’t talk about politics. Smile, nod, and listen but remember, family holidays are not the ideal forum for indulging in our deepest fears and resentments. See tip number 4 for graceful ways to detach from these conversations.
  8. Take care of your physical body. This is extra true if you are traveling overnight. Your powers to resist depression and emotional/neurological dysregulation depend very much on your physical condition. If you do just three things every day of your trip, make it these:
    • Get your sleep no matter what
    • Get fresh air and exercise no matter what
    • Eat protein with every meal and drink lots of water no matter what.
  9. Have a plan B. Visiting family is like scuba diving. You should have a spare tank of oxygen just in case things don’t go as planned. Line up a place where you can stay if things get ugly or fall through entirely. Have a way to get there, such as having your own car, downloading a ride-sharing app or planning your route on public transportation. Identify a holiday gathering where you can go if you end up needing to leave. If you’re traveling out of town, get to the first possible 12-Step meeting and get some phone numbers so you can connect with local support. Enlist your friends at home to support you too. It’s the primal fear of being alone and rejected that makes people feel desperate and trapped at family gatherings. You can consider yourself truly free.
  10. Go easy on the substances. While it’s considered normal to drink heavily at holiday gatherings, and normal to take medication in order to attend stressful gatherings, you getting intoxicated will undermine the first five things I just suggested.  You run the risk of escalating problems or, best case, being a bit of a drag on everyone else.

A note about violence: My family’s holiday gatherings used to occasionally devolve into violence. One thing I love about being a grownup is that I can have a red line on violence, and avoid any get together that I think *might* get violent, and get the heck away from any violent situation (or threat of violence) that arises. I recommend you do the same. 

Happy Thanksgiving (to my fellow Americans) and happy holidays of every kind to all of you!

Anna (the Fairy)


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