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Navigating the Holidays with Your Dysfunctional Family – Karla Downing

December 4, 2019

Navigating The Holidays With Your Dysfunctional Family

My holidays haven’t ever been ones that could be on the Hallmark movie channel. Instead, mine would fit in with the movies written to make you laugh at the crazy dysfunctional people trying to get along just because it is the holidays.


As a result, I haven’t always enjoyed the holidays. I’ve got as many bad memories as good ones, but I’ve learned along the way how to navigate them and would like to share some of those ideas with you.


How To Navigate the Holidays with A Dysfunctional Family

Decide what and who you are willing to have in your home. It is perfectly okay not to invite someone who will cause problems and ruin the holiday for others. It’s also okay not to allow alcohol or people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs to attend. Have conversations with your husband and pray together about these decisions. Your goal is for the two of you to agree. If you both do not have peace about the proposed idea, that is okay. Table it for another time or consider talking through this with a counselor to help you hear each other better. Remember, you do not need the approval of other family members for the decisions you and your husband make about your own home and family.

Focus on controlling yourself instead of controlling others.  Let other people be responsible for their own actions rather than trying to intervene to prevent problems. Let people be responsible for their own feelings rather than trying to take care of them so they don’t get upset, mad, or sad. This might feel different or even difficult for you if you are used to mediating between family members to fix potential problems. Controlling yourself means that you make deliberate and thoughtful choices about what you do and don’t do with things that involve you.

Observe as a third-party observer. Try standing back and watching your family dynamics as if you were given the task of describing who they are and what they do from an impartial viewpoint. You’ll learn things you didn’t know that will give you new insight. You will also be able to detach from what they do instead of taking it personally. This will allow you to step back from the dysfunction in a way you may have previously been unable to do.

Keep it simple to decrease stress. Ask yourself what you want to do rather than doing what you have always done. Consider looking for ways to simplify what you do to make it more enjoyable and less stressful. I’ve used paper plates, potluck, and buffet style dinners. This was a change for my family who were used to a sit-down meal on china with a fancy tablecloth. The buffet style dinner also helped avoid the usual arguments had around the formal dinner table. You can even consider a dessert only celebration or not having anything at your house at all so you can leave when you no longer want to be with your extended family.

Do what’s best for your immediate family. Holidays bring lots of obligations and expectations. Just because someone expects you to do it doesn’t mean you have to. If it isn’t good for you, your husband and your children, then don’t do it. If you can’t handle the backlash from setting your boundaries, do something totally different like going to a mountain cabin with just your immediate family. All you have to say is, “We are doing something different this year. Maybe we’ll join you next year!” Expect to feel bad when you say no for the first time, but it will get easier the more you do it.

Let go of the perfect holiday ideal. Perfection is only an illusion. Do your best to plan what you’d like people to enjoy and then let go of the outcome. This way you’ll be less likely to be disappointed when things don’t go the way you planned and more likely to be surprised at the good things that happen. The ultimate reminder of why things aren’t perfect is that Jesus came to redeem broken people with broken relationships. He brought us the promise of eternal life where we will experience perfection. In the meantime, we are still in a broken world with broken people.

Avoid giving explanations when you bow out of family gatherings. Guilt often causes us to want to offer explanations in hopes to keep all people happy and peaceful. However, oftentimes, explaining the ‘why’ behind your family decisions is not necessary and likely will only cause more confusion or frustration with extended family members. By offering a simple statement offered above, it keeps unity, avoids blaming, and has little opportunity for questioning. 


With these ideas, you can make wiser choices with your holidays and your dysfunctional family.


Wife Step: Consider these questions and talk through them with your husband: What happens with your holidays and your dysfunctional family that you would like to avoid? What can you do to make your holidays different this year?

Karla Downing, the founder of, offers Christian marriage help and Christian relationship help as a speaker, author, counselor, and Bible study teacher. Karla grew up in a dysfunctional family and then found herself struggling with Christian codependency in her own difficult marriage. Through her personal struggles, she discovered biblical and practical principles, which she now teaches to others. She also trains counselors, pastors, women’s ministry leaders, church leaders, small-group leaders, non-profit ministry leaders, and individuals to minister to Christians in difficult relationships. Karla’s passion is to see individuals, marriages, and families set free from the chains of dysfunction, misunderstanding, and emotional pain through a correct understanding of what the Bible teaches about relationships.

Karla Downing is the author of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association 2004 Silver Medallion Award winner, 10 Lifesaving Principles for Women in Difficult Marriages. Her second book, When Love Hurts: 10 Principles to Transform Difficult Relationships, applies the same principles to all family members. Her third book, The Truth in the Mirror: A Guide to Healthy Self-Image, offers a unique and life-changing approach to looking at self-image. 

She holds a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy from Hope International University. Karla also holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Communicative Disorders from California State University, Fullerton. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a licensed Speech Language Pathologist. Karla was also the director of Friends in Recovery, a Christ-based, Twelve-Step recovery program.

Karla lives in Southern California. She has been married for over thirty years and has three adult daughters.


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