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Family Matters

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Linda Mintle, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist, author of 16 books, a national expert on family issues and the psychology of food and weight. She's an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School, a national speaker, writer, and news contributor.

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Setting Limits on Too Much Holiday Cheer


I’ve had so many requests concerning dealing with difficult family members that I decided to post one of the questions. This one has to do with family members who drink too much during holiday times and turn a Merry Christmas into a Scary Christmas.

Q: We will be traveling to our relatives in another state for several family gatherings during Christmas. Two of my siblings are problem drinkers and I am not sure how to handle this with my family. We do not drink so my children are not used to seeing family members act up while under the influence. In the past, the drinking has gotten out of hand. My siblings actually become mean and say terrible things. My children are now old enough to ask questions. What do I do or say if the drinking starts to become a problem again?

A. Drinking during the holidays can get out of control and create many problems for families, especially in families where problem drinkers are in denial and do nothing to prevent getting intoxicated.

The best advice is to make sure that when you visit, you have a way of escape. Even if your siblings offer to let you stay at their homes, reserve a room at a hotel. That way, if their behavior becomes problematic, you can leave. You will have spent time with them and been together for part of the holiday. 

Before you travel, I would tell them and your parents that the past history of drinking makes you uncomfortable and that if things begin to get out of control, you will excuse yourself and leave. This way it puts the burden on them to moderate. If they persist in their behavior, you explained the rules ahead of time.

If you leave the celebration early, have a talk with your children about the importance of family (the reason you continue to visit) but that there are times family members must set limits and boundaries on behavior that is unsafe or inappropriate. Being around people who are drunk and get out of control is not something you choose to endure. Altered states change people in ways that are not always nice. When things begin to become caustic and mean, you can take yourselves out of the situation.

This is a hard line to take, but one that will earn the respect of your children and may cause others to rethink their enabling behavior. A few problem drinkers can ruin the celebration for everyone. Don’t allow anyone to put guilt on you for setting boundaries. You are not telling your family what to do, but telling them what you will or will not tolerate to keep your family safe.

Print      Email to a Friend    posted on Thursday, December 20, 2012 5:27 PM

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