Our next topic in our dreading the holidays series is unhealthy family communication.

Holidays with the family can be difficult because there may be poor communication patterns between any variety of family members.  I see this a lot with family members that want something but don’t know how to ask for it in a healthy way.  This often leads to passive aggressive communication patterns that are nebulous and don’t clearly articulate a person’s needs.

For example, a parent may suggest that you bring a dish to Christmas dinner, but it’s not a big deal if you can’t.  She knows you’re struggling financially and are very busy.  It gets down to the wire and the best you can bring is something store bought.  But your parent said it wasn’t a big deal, so you attend Christmas dinner looking forward to the evening.  Upon seeing your store-bought item, your parent frowns and either:

  1. Compares you to a sibling who brought a fabulous side dish
  2. Conveys a sense of deep disappointment
  3. Communicates that you don’t care about the family
  4. Other behavior that you have experienced.

What’s most likely happening here is that your parent wanted you to put thought into your dish and make something heartfelt to show that you care about family functions.  Some reasons why we struggle to ask for what we want, however, come from our needs being chronically invalidated.  Many of parents have struggled with this even if they don’t want or know to admit it.

While their actions or words may hurt, consider their history that you may know or not know of.  You did the best you could off the information and resources that were provided to you.  There are healthy ways to communicate our pain but consider letting the moment pass and revisiting it later.  In the moment is usually never the teachable moment.  Cope first, then come back and communicate when your emotions are less volatile.

Some Suggestions

A healthier way of communicating is to simply ask for what you want in a kind of straightforward manner.  DBT uses the acronym DEARMAN for this.  I don’t have time to unpack DEARMAN in this blog post but you are welcome to ask me about it in a therapy session or look it up on Therapistaid.com.  I highly recommend it.  The one thing I will say is to start practicing DEARMAN skills in low conflict settings so you can get used to the new communication pattern initially.

The only thing that we can do in these situations is to radically accept them.  That doesn’t mean we like things the way that we are.  But if don’t accept the reality that faces us, there’s nothing we can do to change or influence it!

I would start out by taking a deep breath and repeating a self-validating mantra or phrase of some sort to yourself.  Yes, laugh all you want.  But our self-talk is extremely important especially when faced with invalidation.

Now, your parent or relative may be the one needing the DEARMAN communication skill to learn to simply ask for what they want the first time. However, modeling this skill to them is just as important!  I’ve met many people that despair at their family’s dysfunction.  But I would like to encourage and challenge you to view it different.  By changing your behaviors, you in turn somewhat force your family to accommodate them.  Therefore, if you begin using healthy communication, with time, consistency, and practice you may notice your family adopting your new vernacular or at least asking you about it.