For many people, family gatherings during the Happy Holidays aren't so happy. While most of us enjoy getting together at holidays, mixed feelings of love, anxiety and confusion often collide. But why in the world would family holidays cause consternation or anxious feelings? Why would family be other than a supreme source of joy? Are not our families the portals in the storm and our safe refuge? Sadly, not always, and the reason is that some families just aren't safe and their communication style is often a big part of the problem.

Let's examine the communication style in the unsafe family:

A quick indication a family is unsafe is when a different opinion is voiced and the members turn argumentative or downright nasty. Yikes, pass the cranberries! Sarcastic and insensitive remarks can puncture the air so rapidly you learn, blindfolded, how to bob and weave and prepare to duck. Too late, Bam!

The old 'mean' has become the new 'cool.' It gets big laughs on popular comedy and talk shows but it shouldn't happen in the family. Actually, I wonder why it happens at all, anywhere. I wonder where it began. Maybe you do, too. I also worry where it will go because a child raised to laugh at cutting remarks gets a thick skin or turns psychologically far away from his or her own natural emotions. That practice of 'feeling avoidance' then becomes a practiced behavior for avoiding intimacy altogether in future relationships. If it's adopted as a communication tool later in a marriage, it's a lethal weapon.

It need not be this way in a world which clearly needs more peace and harmony. And it can be corrected if someone takes the time to help us recognize that our long established pattern of relating is not a healthy one. Can we fix the problem on our own? Sometimes,
but a wise friend, counselor or religious person can often identify the pattern quicker and help us find a solution.

Now let's examine the communication style in the safe family:

Civility is key whether or not you agree with another's thoughts or opinions. Eye-rolling is absent. Verbal communications are clear, direct and tempered with some sensitivity. Mean comments are unacceptable though an honest acknowledgment of negative feelings might be.

In a life that is challenging for everyone safe families model a spirit of generosity, get along more than they do not, and cut each other slack when appropriate. They are also forgiving. And should someone want to sing in a voice which sounds like a cat being held by its tail? Everyone will smile and applaud as if the vocalist is making his or her debut at Carnegie Hall.
So What Can You Do?

If your family falls into the 'unsafe' family communication category, recognize it now so you make decisions and set boundaries accordingly. And if you decide to join the unsafe family this season, go with eyes wide open and be brave in setting your own boundary as, "Please don't joke at my girlfriend's expense, and I'd like you to apologize." Or go and bring a few magic tricks or card and board games to teach the children. Or go early and sit with the one or two people who are congenial -- then leave early! That's one of the great benefits of being an adult: we make choices for our own lives. And no one needs to tell anybody - one more time - how we can't change someone else, we can only change ourself.

In closing, remember how you felt when Rocky Balboa raced up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps? I'll bet you were cheering and clapping wildly for him. Well, that's what it feels like when you are in a 'safe' family environment. That's what it feels like when you show enthusiasm for those you love during this holiday season. And that's what it feels like when you remember to make Every Day Matter.

Author's Bio: 

Mary Jane Hurley Brant is a practicing psychotherapist & group psychotherapist with a specialty in hope & grief counseling. She is the author of When Every Day Matters: A Mother's Memoir on Love, Loss and Life (Simple Abundance Press)Foreign Rights St. Paul's, Mumbai, India

“In her moving book on what matters most in life, When Every Day Matters, MJ Hurley Brant confronts the unthinkable with courage, compassion and candor. This book is an exquisite evocation of life after loss.” Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy and Publisher of Simple Abundance Press

“This is a book that will break your heart and put it back together again. This is the story of a daughter who wouldn’t give up and a mother who never lost faith. The reader can’t help but be inspired by the indomitable human spirit that resides within Mary Jane Brant.” Larry Kirshbaum - Founder LJK Literary Management and Publishers Weekly Person of the Year

“A stunningly moving tribute to the love shared by an exceptional mother and daughter.” Caryn Karmatz Rudy, Executive Editor, Grand Central Publishing

Mary Jane has been a guest on National Public Radio and Healing the Broken Heart Internet. She has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Suburban and Wayne Times, The Catholic Standard and Times, The Catholic Star Herald, The Collegeville Way, The Spring/Summer 2009 Villanova Magazine, The Group Circle of the American Group Psychothrapy Asso. Her newest article is in TAPS Magazine for families who sons and daughters were killed serving their country.

MJ is available for interviews and personal consultations