It would be nice if the holiday season were as simply joyful as Starbucks makes it seem. For many people, though, the holidays mark a dark spot on their yearly calendars. Family-focused winter festivities can be difficult beyond the baseline annoyance of travel and the cost of presents—particularly if your parents, siblings, or other relatives don’t accept you for who you are.
Underestimating the significance of family acceptance overlooks the material impact that it has in people’s lives. When people are accepted by their families, they’re are better equipped to deal with life, and experience reduced complications related to mental health. Family rejection, neglect, abuse, or a more general lack of support are particularly devastating issues for LGBTQ people, especially young ones. To better understand the problem and how to cope, Broadly spoke with an expert in familial acceptance: Kathy Godwin, the president of PFLAG National, a leading organization that provides information and resources to family members and friends of LGBTQ people. While the suggestions offered tend to be focused more on young people who may still be living at home, they may have relevance for anyone trying to figure out how to deal with parents that just don’t get you—because holiday hardship is an experience shared by many people, of all identities.
At PFLAG, Godwin works with families and friends of LGBTQ people, and they’re often kids. She points out that if a person is living at their family’s home, rejection from their relatives may have more of a direct impact than it would on an adult living independently. According to Godwin, parents who are too controlling can break down their kids’ trust, putting kids at risk of “loneliness, depression, anxiety, and self-harm.” (If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now, or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.)
According to Godwin, there are many kinds of familial rejection that can cause harm. “Parents who require a kid to attend a non-affirming faith community, who forbid their child's friends in their home, who accompany them on all outings, or who punish them for speaking their truth… create a detrimental situation for their child,” Godwin says. “Especially when that child is trying to figure out who they are.” All kids have to navigate the confusing terrain of adolescence and coming of age, discovering who they are, want to be, and who they love. When their identities or beliefs are rejected by the people who are supposed to care for them, kids lose a vital support system.
If you’re a minor living with family that doesn’t have your back, it’s important to know you’re not alone. This may be especially important for those who are living with abuse. Sometimes, it’s subtle, like when you’re forced into a faith that condemns your identity. Other times, it’s clearer. “Some abuse is more overt, like when a child is being hurt physically,” Godwin says. She has suggestions for young people who may be currently living in abusive situations: “When abuse makes a child feel a desire to self-medicate or otherwise harm themselves, they should seek out a safe place or person, whether [that person is] the parent of a friend, a school counselor, a trusted teacher or doctor, or a family member that has shown support.” (If you think you may be in an abusive situation, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or visit their website.)
Outside of abusive situations, it can still be tricky to figure out how to navigate unfriendly-feeling family atmospheres. People have pretty intense feelings about the way the world is supposed to work. Going against someone’s perception of how men and women are supposed to behave, or what faith you should adhere to, can be met with hostility, and when it happens at home, environments can become toxic, whether you’re a kid or an adult.
You may be a progressive in a family of Trump supporters, a trans girl in a conservative Christian home, or have a family that just doesn’t offer you unconditional love, regardless of your situation. Regardless, if you’re feeling up to it, you can try to lead your family to find empathy for your experience. But be warned: This may require a lot of patience, resilience, and preparation. Godwin offered these suggestions for people who are looking for ways to work through it: “Try to talk to family members one at a time about how you feel and why you feel that way, whether that is fear, anger, frustration—whatever the feeling, try to express it.”
Carve out dedicated time to do the things that you enjoy.
In addition (or as a less taxing alternative) to raw-ass honesty, Godwin suggests pointing family members toward information that might help open their minds, like podcasts, articles, or YouTube videos, that compassionately approach education around the issue you’re dealing with. If you’re LGBTQ, PFLAG is a great place to start looking for resources, like reading, and social media groups where family can connect online to other people going through similar experiences. Maybe you could even convince your parents to go to a local PFLAG meeting, which you can find using this tool.
As nice as successfully educating your family sounds, unfortunately it’s not always possible, worth it, or safe for for LGBTQ people to try that with family members who are unwilling, on their own, to accept them. For instance, your family might be so embroiled in their own bigotry that they are bound to respond with increased hostility if you attempt to broach the subject. Or maybe you’re having a difficult time emotionally and worry that stirring this up will make you feel worse. Either way, taking time for your own self-preservation is key to making it through the holidays.
“All of this can be uncomfortable and exhausting, so carve out dedicated time to do the things that you enjoy,” Godwin says. Your wellbeing is your main priority. Some non-professional suggestions to help you cope: You could, like, borrow your sister’s car, drive to Dunkin, and chainsmoke in the parking lot of your old high school. Or, if that sounds bad to you, try calling someone you love, or putting on a Snuggie and crawling under a bed. In between your holiday-themed consciousness-raising seminars with grandma, Godwin also suggests that you can “go to a movie, read a book, listen to music, find a friend and/or ally to talk [to]. Sometimes, just taking a walk outside can do a lot to bring back your feeling of personal peace.” (Personally, I suggest binge-watching the Lord of The Rings trilogy in the basement.)
Once you’re grown up and out of the house, there tends to be annual pressure to go home and see your family again. People feel obligated, which makes sense, because families are very close social groups and, often, the people who have known you all your life. But just because it seems like you should go back doesn’t mean you have to.
Life is complicated. The social narratives that we’re told (like maintaining family relationships) may not hold up in every circumstance. Sometimes, the kindest thing you can do is to let go of something that just isn’t working anymore. Plus, there are upsides to having your own holiday traditions, and if your family can’t be there for you emotionally, or if they’ve abused you, they’re not entitled to your time.
You can’t navigate difficult relationships and mental health issues on your own, or rely on a few words here. Talk to people who have experience in this space, like a therapist who specializes in family dynamics, or an expert in abuse and healing. ( Psychology Today has a great database of mental health providers) that you can search by various factors including specialty, insurance, and location.) Be gentle on yourself—do this work on your own terms, in your own time, to figure out the best way forward, and, whatever you do, a sincere happy holidays to you.