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When the Bullies are Home for the Holidays

I originally posted this on, you can see the original here. I wanted to share this on my site since I find that the bullies from within our families are the ones hardest to beat, especially when there is an added socital pressure to have "family time" between Thanksgiving and New Years. But what if family time causes you anxiety, depression or rage? Read on...

I hope everyone reading in the United States had a happy and healthy Thanksgiving Holiday last week! When I thought about what to write after taking the holiday week off, I contemplated the numerous discussions I had both in and out of the consulting room regarding people's varied feelings about being with family during the holidays.

Families bring up powerful feelings and interpersonal dynamics. It's inevitable that old family dynamics are stirred up around the dinner table and that's what makes the holidays so difficult, our past is present...AGAIN. Sometimes the bullies of our childhood were not kids on the playground but our siblings, parents, and extended family members.

As a child, you may have felt unable to find allies and keep yourself safe. Perhaps no matter how often you told your parents that your older sibling was being mean, it was dismissed. Or what if you were told to, "Turn the other cheek, it's your brother/sister. They don't mean it." Worse, what if your parent was the aggressor?

Fast forward to 2012 and you find yourself at the dinner table. You and your aggressor get into a disagreement. Suddenly you are transported back 10, 20, or 30 years! You feel attacked, taunted and suddenly ganged up on . You feel same anger, fear and perhaps rage as you did when you were young. How do you protect yourself now?

Take a deep breath. You are no long that child but an adult. It's extremely helpful that you can recognize you are being bullied in the moment and do not have to tolerate this behavior. When I've had clients discuss their concerns about managing destructive family dynamics during the holidays, we've come up with game plans ahead of time to keep themselves sane.

Here are some points that have been helpful. Some may seem quite obvious but the obligation to our families can often times make it difficult to make decisions that are in our best interest:

  • If you are away over several nights make arrangements to stay somewhere you feel comfortable Just because your cousin Sue insists you stay with her does not mean you have to!

  • Have a means to get yourself to and from anywhere. Have a car or be familiar with public transportation Often patients feel trapped in uncomfortable situations because they are dependent on family members to bring them places. 

  • No one particularly likes confrontation, but if you find yourself being bullied as an adult by your childhood bullies you may feel able to assert yourself now. Find your version of this statement, "I will not tolerate being treated disrespectfully/inappropriately." And then leave the area to take a minute to center yourself. Call a friend, or let your partner know that if this happens to check in on you. I recognize this is much easier said than done. You can decide to stay or go once you feel more grounded. This is where having the means to travel independently is important.

  • If seeing family is just too emotionally taxing, consider a day trip (if you live close to your family) as opposed to an overnight trip.

  • If you are going to travel and will stay over night(s), make other plans besides seeing family. Catch up with old friends, visit local attractions.

  • Only visit one holiday a year - you can pick! Go visit family for Thanksgiving, stay home for Christmas.

  • Consider alternative holiday plans - dinner with friends, volunteering, something that will leave you feeling valued.

  • If you do end up having a difficult time with family over the holidays, take some time out for yourself when you return home. Everyone de-stresses differently but find something that is soothing and rejuvenating.

  • Lastly,who says you have to see family? When we free ourselves from the obligation to put ourselves in situations that are emotionally unsafe, we are free to see all the other alternatives. Take a vacation/staycation (a staycation is a vacation in your home town for those who are unfamiliar with the word)!

The holidays bring up so many, often conflicting, feelings. It's important to exercise self care and recognize that while some people may welcome all the family time, others may find they can't leave their families soon enough!

Model Minorities and Mental Health

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