A Lighthearted Response to Holiday Family Dysfunction

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Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

Chances are your family and how you interact with each other is not perfect.

If your family is like many others, there are lingering tensions from past conflicts, one family member has a point of view that is offensive to another, others still haven’t changed bad habits and someone is likely to feel under appreciated.


This time of year, if you watch TV, surf the Web or open a catalog you’re faced with images of happy families, gathered around and sharing good cheer. These images can seep into our consciousness and effect our beliefs and behavior.

So what do you do, if your family doesn’t fit into the happy, close-knit, festive ideal portrayed in the media?

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Amy Johnson, a psychologist in Detroit has come up with a lighthearted game to help you cope that she calls Dysfunctional Family Bingo (The Wall Street Journal).

That’s right, bingo. The game is designed to help you step back from the family dysfunction. So, for example, rather than engaging with your cousin Dan when he disparages your career choice, again, you simply observe. Well, you simply observe and make note on your bingo card.

Dr. Johnson described the technique in an article in the Wall Street Journal. You begin several weeks in advance of family gatherings you anticipate will have some painful moments. Then you identify someone like yourself, a partner who understands the family dysfunction as you do, and doesn’t want to participate in it. This could be someone such as a sibling, partner, spouse or close friend.

In the weeks leading up to the gathering you make a list of annoying or dysfunctional behaviors you expect to encounter at the gathering, creating a bingo card with these behaviors. Then you mark the card (or mark it in your mind, so as not to call attention to the game) while at the gathering when, say, Aunt Josephine makes a slur about your sexual orientation or your mother criticizes your cooking.

One key caveat: the point it to observe, says Dr. Johnson, rather than participate in the dysfunctional behavior. Keep the cards and what you’re doing private. Use the game as a tool to help you watch, rather than react to and engage in family dynamics that you find painful.

The game allows you to identify key family triggers that are upsetting to you and to approach them with levity, according to Dr. Johnson.

A few other expert recommended strategies to survive family gatherings this holiday season:

  • Know your limits: Understand how much time your able to spend with family before you begin to become overwhelmed and plan to keep your visit within your limits, says Lauren Mackler, a Boston therapist and life coach.
  • Keep your expectations in check: Try to remember how your family really functions and let go of idealized visions of a perfect holiday gathering.
  • Be grateful: Even dysfunctional family is family. Take time to focus on what you love and appreciate about your family members, even those who can be difficult.

“People become saddened and distressed to the degree that their idealized family-the family they wished they had-differs from their real family sitting around the holiday dinner table,” says psychologist Dr. Hal Shorey in the Wall Street Journal.

Children develop coping mechanisms to deal with painful family drama. Old feelings and childhood coping strategies may arise when you’re surrounded by family. But as adults, we can often find more effective ways to cope, that allow us to spend time with family and appreciate them for who they are and their role in our lives.

Keep Reading By Author Christy Matta, M.A.
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