Take time off from toxic relatives

Enjoying a low- or no-contact holiday season

The holiday season usually brings to mind happy families celebrating. But for people who have little or no contact with their family, by choice, this time of year can bring stress, anxiety and dread.

The most common reasons for limiting contact with one's family include emotional and other abuse, unresolved addiction and toxic family patterns of interaction. We often put up with behaviors from our family that we would rarely tolerate in our friends and colleagues. Most people who limit or eliminate contact do so only after years of attempting resolution, followed by making a very difficult decision, sometimes with the help of a therapist.

For those with loving families, the idea of going low or no contact is a sad one. But for those with toxic families, parting ways or limiting interactions leads to a drastic improvement in mental health. Going low or no contact is not meant to punish a family member, but rather is an act of self-care, a way of protecting our mental health and shielding our immediate family (especially our children) from the harm we experienced.

Low or limited contact means interacting with family only on certain occasions, often Thanksgiving or Christmas. It may mean making a brief appearance at a family celebration, sending a card or a phone call. It can be quite a challenge to interact with toxic family members in a way that does not result in drama.

Gray rocking means to interact as little as possible with any details of one's life and is one strategy employed by those who maintain minimal contact. Don't talk about work, family, hobbies or anything else that may give one's toxic family ammunition to start the inevitable war. Rather, stick to the utterly boring minutia of daily life. And if the war starts, do not show any emotion in response or engage in any way.

Eliminating contact with one's family can make it easier in some ways, such as no longer having to navigate the tricky waters of interaction. But it can be harder in other ways, such as trying to enjoy the holidays despite not having a loving family with whom to celebrate or having to explain to co-workers that no, there is no traveling home for the holidays.

Many of us have unpleasant memories of holidays spent with our toxic family of origin, and those memories can make it hard to enjoy the holidays with our chosen family and friends, or our partner and/or children. There are a variety of ways to get through the holidays, including with therapist support.

Friendsgiving has become more popular throughout the years, with the drunken shouting matches of childhood replaced with good food, games or movies with friends. Friendsmas can be a thing also!

Others with toxic families may take a trip to a location that does not celebrate the holiday in question, or to a favorite location to celebrate being together without one's toxic family. Others simply stop celebrating holidays, instead filling the time with self-care such as long, luxurious baths or going camping with their dog.

Sometimes a new celebration is in order, such as transitioning from bad Christmas memories to happy solstice memories. Another option is celebrating traditions that were never a part of the festivities of our family of origin, like driving around and sipping hot chocolate while seeing holiday light displays, Christmas caroling, baking holiday treats to share with friends and neighbors, wearing Christmas jammies all day, making a new holiday food to become a tradition, celebrating at home instead of traveling, having a sober holiday, using an Advent calendar or giving and receiving books on Christmas Eve.

Substituting traditions of our own making can go a long way to recover the holidays for our own enjoyment. It can make the holidays a time to look forward to instead of a time to dread.

For those without toxic families, how can you make the holidays a little brighter for those of us who do have them? One way is to not make a big deal if you find out someone is low or no contact with their family. It may not be easy for you to understand, but not many people want or need to hear the depths of trauma that may have triggered this decision, nor should anyone feel pressured to share those details to make their decision understood. Assume that someone who has gone no or low contact has experienced a life that makes this decision a logical one.

Open your home to friends who have no one else to celebrate the holidays with. Although we may think of holidays as being for our families, Friendsgiving and Friendsmas can add a certain depth of joy to our celebrations. Above all, support their decision on how they would like to celebrate the holidays, or even to not celebrate.

Carey Smith has been no-contact with her parents for several years and has found holiday joy in celebrating the winter solstice.

Carey Smith

In addition to freelance writing, Carey Smith also manages the Enos Park Neighborhood Gardens. She's a big fan of trees, prairies, board and card games, her family, and assorted nerd-out topics like soil science, archaeology and systems thinking. She loves living in the Enos Park neighborhood.

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