While, for some, this season may be a wonderful time of family togetherness, for others the approaching holiday gatherings may trigger feelings of dread as they face the stress, exhaustion, and emotional impact of wondering how to deal with difficult family dynamics. If you’re facing potential conflict this Christmas, Laurie Davies encourages you to fix your eyes on Jesus in the midst of the drama, and offers 5 ways you can prepare yourself (from your head to your toes) to gain the proper perspective and remind yourself that the only one you ultimately have control over this holiday season is you.
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Navigating difficult family dynamics during the holidays is no fun.
Under the best of circumstances, in even the healthiest of families, holiday get-togethers can be stressful. But add a dash—or decades—of dysfunction, and you’ve got a recipe for conflict, exhaustion, and hurt. There’s nothing festive about friction; if some of us are honest, we long for less silent treatment and more “Silent Night” during the holidays. If we’re really honest, we might even admit that we secretly think “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is a catchy little tune.
If your weary heart is wary of holiday gatherings this year, you are not alone. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that nearly four in ten people report higher stress during the holidays, and family gatherings were one of the top stressors.
A Better Way
But there’s a better way. We don’t have to have to limp to December 26, wondering how another holiday season flew off the rails. We can decide now how we’ll navigate difficult family dynamics. Author Dr. Henry Cloud calls this, “having a vision for the holidays.”
So, what do you want the holidays to be like?
Here are five areas that may help you form your vision. They’re organized head to toe, both so you can remember them easily, and so you can be reminded that the only one you ultimately have control over this holiday season is you.
1. EYES UP
When I was 14, I baked Valentine’s Day cookies for the kids I babysat. Shaped like hearts and iced with hand-lettered messages like, “Be mine” and, “I love you,” they took all morning to bake. Since I had cookies left over, I took a plate of plain, white-iced cookies out to the garbage man that afternoon. “Here, I have something special for you,” I said, foisting the frosted goodness into his hands.
Later, I grabbed the kids’ plate and walked down the hill to their house. They tore the foil off and began gobbling down plain, white-iced cookies.
That meant—oh, no.
No, no, NO.
My garbage man thought I wanted him to be mine! 35 years later and 1,500 miles away, I’m still triggered by the Wednesday rumble of the garbage truck.
But don’t we do this all the time? We put our best gifts in the wrong places. We give time and energy to people and places that drain us. This isn’t to suggest that we should boycott our families (although sometimes distance is healthiest) or insinuate that spending time with extended family during the holidays isn’t a worthwhile pursuit.
But it’s not the worthwhile pursuit. Only Jesus is.
O Come, Let Us Adore Him
When we fix our eyes on Jesus, our difficult family dynamics take their proper place. When Jesus is everything, family drama is only one thing.
If you’re like me, however, it helps to have a tangible place in Scripture to drop anchor for a big concept like adoration. Mark 5 is my Mount Everest for that. In this passage, we discover that on His way to raise a 12-year-old girl from the dead, Jesus healed a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. The girl had been living as long as the woman had been dying.
He’s so tender with them both. Jesus did something for the bleeding woman—whose condition left her with no intimacy, no money, and no dignity—that no one had done in a very long time. He saw her.
With the girl, Scripture says Jesus held her hand before He brought her back to life. Imagine. The first thing she felt was what every adolescent girl needs: affection and safety.
The Lord is worthy of our affection independent of what He does for us, yet He reads the room and offers what we need anyway. It’s not difficult to adore this kind of Lord. So, eyes up. Look for Him. He loves to be found.
Act It Out
- Remember how it was when you first followed Jesus. You adored Him! Make a note of the things you adore(d) about Him.
- Bundle up and take a walk outside. Look around and look up! You’ll find God’s handiwork everywhere.
2. TONGUE TAMED
The New Testament book of James calls the tongue a fire, a restless evil, and a deadly poison (James 3:6,8). James also says no one can tame it.
So, we’ll just move on. If the tongue can’t be tamed, there’s no point in trying, right?
To be fair, some of us approach holiday gatherings in a state of DEFCON 1 maximum readiness because we have a hunch that this year will be just like the others. We’ll get baited into the same old arguments, unable to stop as it escalates from tight-lipped squabbling to full-blown meltdown.
Open season on our spouse begins—again.
The family secret you buried 20 years ago surfaces.
The abuse you endured is glossed over like it never happened.
And we limp out the door on December 26 saying, “Why do I let my family make me so crazy!”
We Need Divine Assistance
Like a soda can that explodes under pressure, the complicated contents of our hearts explode through our mouths. And while we can’t tame our tongues on our own, we do have help. Think of all the times in Scripture when God gave people (and once, even a donkey) the right words to say!
- Speaking to Moses, God said, “… I will be with your mouth” (Exodus 4:15).
- With the prophet Ezekiel, God made his tongue cling to the roof of his mouth, except when he spoke on God’s behalf (Ezekiel 3:26).
- To Isaiah and Jeremiah, God said, “I have put my words in your mouth…” (Isaiah 51:16, Jeremiah 1:7b).
- Jesus promised His friends that the Holy Spirit would teach them in their hour of need what they ought to say (Luke 12:12).
Here’s a question for us today: Would God give only some of His children the words to say some of the time? Or, through His Holy Spirit, would He be more generous than that? The balance of Scripture suggests it’s the latter. We do have a say in what we say.
The Apostle Paul writes, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Act It Out
- Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the right words to say.
- Have a few conflict-defusing phrases handy, such as, “Thank you for telling me that,” or “I hear that’s important to you.” (Read this blog post for 15 practical phrases that can help you dial down conflict.)
3. HEART OPEN
Some of us have had our hearts broken by family members. They’ve controlled, manipulated, berated, or abused us, and it’s taken us years to recover. The thought of going back into that mess has us wishing the holidays were over.
Rather than wishing the holidays away, let’s commit this year to unhook from the dysfunction. This may mean limiting in-person contact with toxic or damaging family members, especially if they’re unrepentant. It may mean that we visit with clear boundaries and a plan of action or exit if those boundaries are violated.
However we navigate the tough realities, we can guard our hearts and still keep them open. That’s because our hearts are not made of stone.
A Welcome Reminder
I’m thinking of a walk I took recently on a rocky beach. Grieving over a long-running family wound, I hung my head. Honest to goodness, a heart-shaped, smooth ocean rock was right there at my feet. I picked it up and wondered how much wind, water, and sediment had made it smooth in my hand.
I sensed God telling me that thousands of pounds of pressure, grief, and growth had taken the rough edges off of my heart. And I sensed God telling me that He had done heart surgery, too: “And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart” (Ezekiel 36:26, NLT).
We have new hearts! And now it’s up to us to ask God to keep them clean and to unclog the resentment, anger, and sin that accumulates.
Clean hearts are renewed hearts, and renewed hearts open up to difficult family members without harsh judgment.
We can keep our hearts open while setting boundaries. It’s not a zero-sum game. Here’s how this might look: We express firm boundaries on the outside (e.g., “Please don’t criticize my spouse’s weight or I’ll need to ask you to leave.”) while also lathering empathy on the inside (e.g. being gentle in our thoughts and praying for the critical person).
In Scriptural terms, this is called praying for those who persecute you, and it is one of the highest forms of evidence of Christ in us.
Act It Out
- Be kind. As the Scriptures say, “A man who is kind benefits himself, but a cruel man hurts himself” (Proverbs 11:17).
- Jilt the guilt. If a family member tries to guilt-trip you about your boundaries, don’t bite.
- Dig for empathy. Something happened to make your family member act out this way. Pray God would heal the hurt or pain they have endured.
Can you imagine what it would be like to arrive at your family gathering without all the baggage? If you’re traveling, of course you’ll need ugly sweaters and snow boots. But what about all the other stuff you’ve lugged for so long? What if you weren’t carrying the heavy weight of worthlessness, resentment, fear, and regret?
God models how good it is to have open hands. Psalm 145:16 says, “You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
And for us, think of all that open hands can do! They can bless, serve, give, receive, help, hold, and worship.
In order to go hands-free, we need to know what we’re lugging and how to set it down.
Fear / Love
Do you live life afraid? Is almost every decision you make governed by fear? If you’re afraid to dig that deep because you’re not sure what you’ll unearth, here’s a gut check. Are you angry all the time? Anger is an easier emotion to grab than shame or fear. If it’s present, it’s probably camouflaging something underneath.
Love untwists fear knots. My friend Debbie puts it this way: “My litmus test when I’m afraid is, ‘Have I forgotten His love?’” This sounds like 1 John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18a).
Rejection / Acceptance
Maybe rejection is your trigger, and it hits home because home is where you experienced it most. Acceptance is the antidote. Since Jesus made us acceptable to God, we don’t need the acceptance of people. We are acceptable in His sight. He is pleased with us.
You can adopt this problem/antidote strategy for your situation: Identify the baggage you’re lugging and search Scripture to find the antidote. This is the key to hands-free living.
Act it Out
- Physically drag a heavy suitcase around for half of a Saturday. (No retractable handles—that’s cheating!) Now, set it down. Imagine that your fear, regret, or shame are inside, and consider how good it would feel to set those down too.
5. FEET READY
Growing up with talent in softball and a maiden name of “Huth,” my nickname was the best nickname in the history of softball. Babe Huth. I know. It almost makes me feel sorry for anyone who’s ever played the game.
As the second-baseman, I turned my share of 6-4-3 double plays (shortstop-to-second-to-first). I had to learn to plant my feet before I could turn and throw. I had to be planted in order to be ready.
This is a good lesson for our feet. Some of us have spent years trying to plant our feet on a broken foundation. That just makes us insecure and performance-based. Maybe you can relate.
- If we don’t rock the boat, the family get-together will be stable.
- If we just absorb the insults and criticism, we’ll get out of this thing alive.
- Maybe, if we let (the pouter/guilt-tripper/manipulator) have their way, we’ll keep the peace.
That last one is interesting because the final piece of armor described in Ephesians 6 is “readiness given by the gospel of peace.” This is often misquoted. It’s not peace we put on our feet—it’s readiness. This is helpful in a 6-4-3 double play and life. The Gospel of peace readies us.
Planted and Stable
So with ready feet and God as our sure foundation (Isaiah 33:6) and our rock in whom we take refuge (Psalm 18:2), we become planted and stable.
An amazing thing happens when we plant our feet on God’s firm foundation. All of the actual functions described in Scripture that involve our feet become easier.
- We have the servant-mindedness to wash others’ feet.
- We have the confidence and discernment to shake the dust off our feet. And we can depart quickly, if needed, from an unpleasant situation.
- We have the presence of mind to sit at Jesus’ feet, relishing His teaching.
- We have the discipline to keep our steps on His paths.
God cares about where we put our feet. He knows it’s hard for us to shift away from the faulty foundations we may have known. But once we place our full weight onto Him and His Word, our footing will never flounder again.
Act it Out
- If you are physically able, balance your weight on an unstable surface like a couch cushion or a yoga balance ball while holding a conversation. Now, plant your feet on the floor. Do you see how much more attention you have when your feet are planted?
- Keep a journal noting the times in Scripture when God is described as a rock or foundation. Note any promises you find as a result of standing on Him.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
As you read Scripture on your own this holiday season, a great discovery awaits. Everything from head-to-toe works together. You’ll see it pop right off the page when you ask the Spirit to illuminate God’s Word.
Here’s what I mean. Do you remember the Psalm 121 verse that talks about our feet not being moved? That passage opens with the familiar words: “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Our eyes connect to our feet.
If you backtrack to your heart work, it’s connected closely to the tongue. The Psalmist said, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
This heart work also connects to our eyes. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Our tongues also relate to our hands: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands (Psalm 63:3-4, emphasis mine).
Connecting the Dots
Isn’t that fun? Scripture connects all the dots. It connects two things that were very far apart—God and us. And it connects the hard places in our family stories to healing.
So, eyes up. Tongues tamed. Hearts open. Hands-free. And feet ready. The holidays await. And you have good memories to make.
Did any of Laurie’s suggestions specifically speak to you? How might you start practically preparing yourself (from head to toe) for any potential family conflict heading into this season? Do you have any advice to share on how to navigate difficult family dynamics during the holidays?