The holiday season is upon us!

This is the time of year that brings families together. It can also be the time of year that reminds us why we might choose to spend time apart. Why is it that we can walk through the door of our parents’ homes and immediately feel like we’re ten years old again? If you find yourself anxious at the thought of spending quality time with your extended family this holiday season, taking a look at family roles and the feelings these roles can trigger may be a reason why.

As children growing up in a family system, we are often unconsciously assigned roles to fill. Were you the high-achieving hero who diligently lived up to your parents’ expectations and who continues to keep things running smoothly to this day? Or perhaps the scapegoat, an example of how to not fit in with the rest of the family? Maybe you were the mascot who provided comic relief when tensions ran high? Or the lost child, fading into the background with your nose in a book, someone who no one really got to know at all?

Gathering again with aging parents and adult siblings, we may feel the uncomfortable pull of someone else’s expectations for us. Those unresolved feelings from childhood and the sense of guilt, obligation, and sometimes disappointment they can trigger are what can make us uncomfortable in these situations.

The following tips are part of my Family Holiday Survival Guide that can help our quality time feel more enjoyable for all:

  1. Recognize your triggers. Realize that old childhood roles and expectations no longer have to be part of your adult experience and don’t allow yourself to react to them as if they are. Recognizing and then interrupting our own dysfunctional behavior pattern is the first step toward changing our relationships for the better.
  2. Establish a time limit before you arrive. If two hours is the length of time you feel comfortable spending with the extended family, determine an exit strategy within that two hour window. No need to stay all day if you know from past experience that inhibitions lower and hurtful things are more likely to be said the longer you are together. Traveling from out of town? Renting a hotel room to allow yourself a place to unwind and recharge is often money well spent
  3. Choose a safe word (and share it with a safe person). Choose a unique word or phrase and share it with your significant other or another “safe” family member. If you find yourself becoming triggered or upset, use your safe word to make a fast get away. Something as simple as a walk around the block is often enough to deescalate a situation and give all parties time to clear our heads.

For more information on building, strengthening, and healing family relationships, please visit our blog at

Wishing you all a safe, joyful, and emotionally healthy holiday season!



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