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November 25, 2020

A Family Therapist’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

Written by Amanda Burrafato, LMFT, LCAS

As we careen into the holiday season of an altogether unprecedently stressful year, we may find ourselves in the old reliable stress produced by the holidays. While you brine your turkey and stock your shelves with supplies, it’s important that you prepare for not only your dinner, but also for navigating holiday classics like criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

John Gottman famously coined these “The 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse” in his many works surrounding couples’ therapy. These gnarly behaviors can do a lot of damage in any of our relationships. Luckily, they do not require a remedy of biblical proportion to navigate!

Keep these four tips in mind and you may just make it to grandma’s house laughing all the way.

Criticism is a verbal attack on someone’s personality or character.

“You never consider how your behavior affects others; you are just selfish.”

Or a complaint/ prompt such as: “Hey babe, don’t forget about…”

Remedy: Consider a gentle start up. Use “I” statements that keep the focus on how you feel vs “you” statements with cutting personality judgements. By keeping the focus on you and your needs rather than on another person’s insufficiencies, you avoid triggering mind fields of emotions that will interfere with your stuffing or gravy intake.

Contempt is an attack on the sense of self with the intent to insult or abuse.

“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around to put this dinner together and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?” 

Remedy: Build a culture of appreciation, remind yourself of the other’s positive qualities, and find gratitude in positive actions. This is especially essential at a family dinner with varying political views. Remind yourself of your shared common values: maybe it’s faith, maybe it’s family, we just have different ideas on how to protect and honor these values. At the core, when someone is coming from a place of conviction, they are also coming from a place of fear. We don’t attack our kid’s character when they are afraid. No, we listen and attempt to understand where it’s coming from.

Defensiveness is the act of victimizing yourself to ward off a perceived attack and reverse the blame.

“No, I didn’t get the pie, you knew how busy I was, why didn’t you just do it?”

Remedy: Take responsibility, accept the perspective being offered, and offer an apology for any wrongdoing. After years of family involvement there are bound to be “trigger points” we take way too personally. Sometimes it really is just about the pie: nobody is saying you’re an incompetent parent. You are responsible for your own trigger points. Take an inventory the same way you inventoried the car before you left the driveway. Sometimes just bringing a little mindfulness to what makes us tick is a useful way to catch ourselves before we ready for war.

Stonewalling is withdrawing and avoiding conflict and conveying disapproval, distance and separation.

…exits stage left.

Remedy: Self sooth, take a break and spend time doing something that will calm you down. We all get to a place sometime where we need a break. There is a big difference between avoidance and “I’m getting too worked up about this, can we change the subject for now?” or “I got to get some air. Can we do this later in private?”

Lastly: A general holiday remedy from your Behavioral Wellness Team at Avance Care: Remember why you go through all this in the first place. How many more holidays with people we care about are we really guaranteed? If there is one thing 2020 has taught us, it is that life is too short and too precious. Eat your pie, remind yourself why you love the friend and family you surround yourself with, and if you truly find yourself struggling with any of the horsemen, make it YOUR New Year’s resolution to work on it.

Happy Holidays! And good luck from the Behavioral Wellness Team!



  1. Lisitsa. The Four Horseman: The Antidotes. 4.26.2013. The Gottman Institute.
  2. Lisitsa. The Four Horseman: Recognizing Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling 4.23.2013. The Gottman Institute.

Dr. Sharon Kirlik, PhD, LCSW graduated with her Masters in Social Work (MSW) from the University of Georgia. Later, with the adoption of her African American son and then, her Haitian American daughter, she realized an even deeper passion for working with children and families who were societally marginalized and oppressed. Her interests have compelled her to travel throughout the countries of Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and India allowing her to become immersed in the respective cultures. While completing her PhD with distinction, Dr. Kirlik was publicly recognized in Chicago for her programs created to improve the quality of life for foster care children. Her programs later took her to several countries throughout the continent of Africa, and have won acclaim and recognition among many South African organizations and other government leaders.

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