Surviving Family Drama during the Holidays


Emily stood in the rain intently staring at the travel poster outside the travel agency. Stunning sandy beaches, sun streaming onto golden beach goers, calm water just as blue as a sapphire. But the photo told only half the story; the headline told the rest:

“Forget the Family Drama & Escape to Barbados for the Holidays!”


Memories of last year’s holiday brought a sting of realization that she still wasn’t talking to her sister after a big fight.

There would be questions and accusations as always – and she would be the bad guy. Again. And with that, Emily was making reservations for Barbados before she even realized what was happening!

In his book, “When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People: Surviving Your Family and Keeping Your Sanity” (2005) Leonard Felder, a psychologist and author relates that his research shows fully 68 percent of those he interviewed said they found family functions “frustrating or unenjoyable”.

It’s inevitable that expectations run high during the holidays. We all have a tendency to compare the ideal families we see portrayed in advertising to our own and for many of us, these comparisons sadly fall short.

Your Family of Origin

Awareness is key in learning how your present feelings for the holidays relate to the past – whether you’re truly looking forward to time with family, or are dreading it – are influenced by your past.

Your family of origin is that family in which you grew up, typically parents and siblings, but your family or origin would also include extended family such as grandparents if they lived with you. This is the family that had the greatest impact on your formative years and who may be exerting the greatest influence on whom you’ve become as a spouse and parent.

Why do these family issues seem to loom so large? If you grew up in a healthy family environment, you likely learned the benefits of compromise and negotiation in your own marriage and are in turn, teaching those skills to your own children.

Your challenge is greater if your family of origin experienced serious issues such as mental illness, abuse, alcoholism poverty, infidelity or divorce, however the rewards of taking on this challenge can be immense, particularly to your present family.

Triggers & the Reptilian Brain

It’s important to recognize what precipitates your feelings about family holiday events, particularly extreme feelings like dread. “Triggers” can include people, places, words, sounds, smells, and tastes – nearly anything that precipitates a certain feeling or emotion. As you can imagine, the list could be endless when speaking about our family of origin!

These triggers are instinctual and originate in what’s known as the reptilian brain, a part of the triune brain responsible for basic fight/flight or freeze reactions. Confronted by even a perceived stressor, an automatic and unconscious reaction occurs: cortisol is released into the system resulting in anxiety, depression – even physical illness.

Social situations, particularly those that are emotion-laden during the holidays are ripe for triggers. Recognizing them provides you with valuable insight.

Article contributed by
Advanced Member

Mary Kay Cocharo


Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT, Certified Imago Relationship Counselor and Master Encounter-centered Couples Therapist

11340 W. Olympic Blvd. Suite 210, Los Angeles,  California 90064 310.828.2624

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Credentials: LMFT, Other
Specialties: Communication Problems, Couples/Marital Issues, Dating/Being Single Support
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