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  • Christie Pearl, LMHC, LPC

How to deal with difficult family members during the holidays

Happy holidays!

Or is it?

For so many Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, the holidays can feel like the least wonderful time of the year, in stark contrast to what the feverishly happy scenes in every TV commercial bombarding us since Halloween are suggesting they "should" be.

Many ACOAs dread family get togethers, or maybe even avoid them. Some feel the stress building every time well meaning friends, colleagues and acquaintances ask that ubiquitous question: "So what are you doing for the holidays?"

If you are among the many Adult Children who are planning to interact with family members who you might find difficult during the holiday season, here are a few strategies for dealing with what therapist and author Lindsay Gibson calls Emotionally Immature Parents (EIPs) in her book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, which I highly recommend!

Give yourself a break

The first step is to recognize that dealing with difficult people in general, and emotionally immature or dysfunctional family members in particular, can be HARD! Don't expect yourself to handle everything perfectly. The fact that you are showing up and working on yourself says a lot about your own level of emotional maturity and ability to practice self-awareness.

Be an observer

Being an observer means you can step back and notice interactions with others, instead of getting consumed by them. Observing your interactions with EIPs allows you to use whatever practices help you stay grounded in the present moment and keep your sense of self rather than getting enmeshed with them.

Remember that EIPs are likely going to demonstrate strong defenses and behavior that you might feel triggered by. Staying grounded in observer mode helps you keep your mind on track instead of getting pulled off line into your own defensive reactions.

Plan ahead of time

Have your strategies planned in your mind ahead of time. You can plan to repeat the word "detach" in your mind if you notice yourself starting to feel reactive. You can silently narrate your emotional experience to yourself. When all else fails, plan to excuse yourself to go to the restroom, visit the dessert table, or make a phone call.

Focus on the interaction, not the relationship

Trying to change EIPs is a losing battle. You can't expect EIPs to all of a sudden be different. Focusing on your goal for the interaction, instead of improving the relationship, allows you to have a more successful outcome and one that is actually achievable. For example, set a goal to enjoy time with the kids, or a goal to let your family know you will be leaving by 7:00pm even if you feel nervous saying it. Staying focused on your goal helps you avoid deeper emotional landscape which EIPs have limited capacity to tolerate and helps you to stay with yourself and avoid disappointment.

Step out of the rescuer role

EIPs usually identify with being a victim of one thing or another and, because they lack healthy emotional skills, have used manipulation to get their needs met. Many Adult Children have played the rescuer role in their families by overidentifying with the EIP's feelings, jumping in to rescue and fix things for them. The problem with this is that no matter how much the Adult Child does, it's usually never enough, and the EIP has limited ability to actually take in the connection and positive intention of the Adult Child anyway. Reminding yourself of this can help you to avoid falling into this trap while spending time with EIPs. You can agree with their feelings but not their demands and empathize without jumping into fix by simply saying "Yes, that sounds hard" or "That must be painful" or "I know you think is a mistake". But you don't have to act on what they might be wanting you to actually DO about it.

Be slippery and sidestep

Because they struggle with authentic emotional connection, EIPs feel safer when there is a lack of clarity in conversations, and they are limited in their sincere desire to connect with others. Adult Children can use strategic avoidance during these interactions by saying "I don't know" or "I'm not really sure" or "I can't answer that right now" as a gentle way of avoiding getting caught in this trap of confusion with the EIP. You can be noncommittal, change the subject, ask questions, or even leave the conversation as a way to keep yourself feeling grounded and safe.

Use repetition

It is important to remember that a big part of what makes EIPs behave the way they do is that their own emotional development was stunted and there are emotional parts of them that are functioning below age level. Don't expect an EIP to cooperate. Just like you might repeat things to help a child learn, using calm, empathetic repetition with EIPs can be very useful. EIPs are often used to using emotional reactivity to get others to do what they want, and don't have the persistence to stay on track with gentle repetitive communication. By repeating yourself, you can help yourself stay on track and remain focused on your wants and needs.

Know your limits

Only you know how much you can comfortably do while staying true to yourself. Boundaries can help make the interaction go as well as it possibly can, but be realistic about what is actually possible.

You can do it!

Remember you don't need to master the art of managing your EIP. You cannot control them or dominate them. You are working to master yourself.

You aren't trying to have a good relationship with your EIP. You are trying to have a good interaction with them - if that is what you want.

One more thing...

It is OK to grieve the family or the parents you wish you had. Part of recovering from growing up with EIPs is allowing space for YOUR true feelings without having to worry so much about theirs.

Give yourself permission to feel whatever you need to feel.

I want to wish you a holiday season that is whatever you need it to be. Whether that is spending time with chosen family or with yourself, my hope for you is that you feel nourished and restored.


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