Family Functions and Dysfunctions

‘Tis the season for families to gather together, and for some, these will be warm, happy times, filled with glowing Norman Rockwell tableaux and plenty of lovin’ from the oven. If that unambiguously describes your holiday season, count your blessings, and read no further.

For the many people still reading: don’t be embarrassed, you’re not alone. The holiday season is stressful, and not just because of the ever-looming threat of weight gain. Many families, even the most together ones, get increasingly anxious as the time for holiday gatherings draws near. Perhaps you worry about some of the following questions:

- who will drink too much and get mean or inappropriate this year?;
- which sibling will be scapegoated?; which siblings will fight and will it come to blows?; who will mom and dad defend and who will they blame?;
- how much criticism will you have to take? how much being ignored can you stand?;
- are mom and dad going to snap and bite at each other the whole time? will they finally get divorced this year?;
- is this the year you’ll finally come out of the closet? Or is it better just to go on deflecting the questions?
- which of your divorced parents gets what time from you?; which of your kids will be with you? which ones, if any, will be speaking to you?

I could go on. If I left you out in the above, I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

I suggest that instead of greeting the holidays by going unconscious and numb - and then coming back to your regular life and getting depressed and having fights with your friends and loved ones and wondering why - that you instead take some time to consider what you need to do for yourself to stay sane and healthy over the holidays.

It might seem wrong and not nice, when you’re supposed to be spontaneously creating all those Hallmark/Kodak moments, to be using prescription anti-anxiety medication; or sneaking calls to your therapist or 12-step sponsor; or looking over the plane and train schedules you brought with you in case of the need for an emergency premature departure. You’re right. Reality is not always pretty.

So if you know that Day 5 is always when it hits the fan, then plan in advance to leave on Day 4. If drink 4 is when you start losing control, stop at drink 3. If you need to stay home this year, then by all means take a year off, and give yourself some time to sort things out. Any of the options above make more sense than allowing yourself to be pulled, yet again, into a destructive group regression, turned into a child again, assigned a role to play that you long ago outgrew. As the poet wrote, “good fences make good neighbors,” and similarly, good boundaries, not too loose, not too rigid, but just right, are at least one element of what makes good families.

Remember, nobody’s perfect, including you, and no one’s family is perfect. How do you balance your love and your anger, your need to connect and your need to be your own person? No easy answers. Use the support you have from those you trust, and make the best of your particular imperfect situation. Find warmth and make warmth wherever you can this season. Happy Holidays, and see you in the New Year!
© Daniel Shaw, 2009

Daniel Shaw, LCSW, practices psychotherapy in Nyack and in NY City.
Reach him at (845) 548-2561 in Nyack,
at (212) 581-6658 NewYork City
by e-mail:
and now blogging at: