Surviving Dysfunctional Holidays

Thanksgiving and Christmas are a time for celebration, to reconnect with family. But what if your family is less than pleasant? What if it’s downright destructive? According to mental health experts, as many as 25% of us feel some kind of holiday anxiety or depression. For many, sitting around the “family table” can trigger old wounds. Perhaps even instigate new ones.

For decades, this was how Tessa Richmond* felt. Raised by an alcoholic father and a mother with bipolar disorder, she prayed to get through the season without a fight. When she became a parent, longing to protect her children from the pain she’d experienced, she decided to have Christmas at her house. “I chose to keep the family home for Christmas to give my kids stability,” Richmond said. “I knew I could control the environment (no alcohol), and set the tone—focusing on Jesus.”

Her extended family disagreed. “My parents were divorced, and my mom thought we should be at her house. My sister thought we should come to her house. My brother thought we should come to his house. It was such a mess, and no one was willing to compromise.”

Familial obligations and expectations created a great deal of stress. Until God showed her these expectations weren’t from Him, but instead, came from man. God’s expectations are simple. He wants us to worship and honor Him. When we sift everything—our traditions, obligations, and expectations—through that, often, we experience a great deal of peace.

Rooting out manmade expectations can be tough, especially during the holidays. This might require us to make some difficult choices—to set boundaries. But setting Christ-centered boundaries becomes easier when we remember we are not responsible for how others react. We are responsible for how we obey. God assumes responsibility of everything else—including our emotional wellbeing. When we throw off everything that hinders our obedience and zero our focus on God and God alone, we place ourselves squarely in His shadow—His protection. Oftentimes, having a safe place to shelter is all we need.

“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High 
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.’ Psalm 91:1-2 (NIV)

Amidst our storm and heartache, God calls us to rest. To abide. To seek refuge—in Him and Him alone. To pause and envision His protective arms around us, like a mother eagle sheltering her young. This doesn’t mean He will still the storm, nor that He will keep us from it. But it does mean He will hold us through it, buffering our tender hearts and guiding us each step of the way.

For some, God might call us to pull away—to establish our own holiday traditions. For others, He might call us to step into the muck as an instrument of His soul-penetrating light. Regardless what He calls us to do, we can rest assured, knowing He always has our best in mind. (Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28)

This holiday season, when your stress level begins to rise, take a moment to pray. Ask God to show you His perfect will in whatever situation you might face. Have man-made expectations stolen your joy and averted your focus? If so, ask God for the courage and strength to make whatever changes necessary to center your Christmas/Thanksgiving back on Him.  Meditate on the following verse:

“Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them.” 2 Timothy 2:4 (NLT)

Don’t get tied up, entangled, suffocated by, the affairs of the world. Instead, center your thoughts, heart, and actions on Jesus Christ, your strong, victorious, commanding officer.

Analyze your holiday routine. What activities bring you the most stress? Can any of those be eliminated? Can any be done simpler? 

If family obligations create stress, consider having a private celebration on a different day. That way you can still enjoy all those things that make Christmas/Thanksgiving special and bring you joy and peace.

Make Christmas a time between you and God. In other words, remember, it’s His birthday, not ours. Perhaps the holiday season can be an opportunity for you to offer Jesus a priceless gift—yourself—your pains, stress, expectations, laying it all on the altar as a selfless act of worship.

The holiday times can be difficult, especially if we come from or live in a dysfunctional family, but by centering our thoughts, hearts, and actions on Christ, releasing manmade obligations and expectations, and seeking shelter in Him and Him alone, we can experience comfort and strength, and perhaps, even a few moments of joy.  

*Name changed for privacy purposes

Jennifer A. Slattery

Author and speaker Jennifer Slattery lives in the midwest with her husband of 21 years. She loves helping women discover, embrace, and live out who they are in Christ and can be found speaking on related topics at various events throughout the year. When not writing, speaking, or serving, you'll likely find her at one of Omaha's independently owned coffeehouses. Visit or to connect with her online or book her or her team for your next for your next women's event.

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  1. Amen, very well said.

  2. Thanks, Denise, and may your holidays be peaceful and Christ-centered.

  3. Thanks for these reminders Jen! Really resonated with this truth: "We are responsible for how we obey." God bless~

  4. Thanks, Maria! That's something I need to remember often! And it sure simplifies things, doesn't it? 


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