Going from from being independent at school to being surrounded by family members at home for the holidays can be difficult for anyone. However, the transition can be even more difficult when you’re an LGBTQ+ collegiette and your family members are less than supportive. We rounded up tips for how to survive this holiday season even when you have to deal with unsupportive family members.
1. Build your support system
Imagine this: You’re standing in your living room with your immediate and extended family members. No one is being outwardly rude, but not everyone is being extremely welcoming, either. The few family members whom you are close to are busy. You don’t know what to do with yourself. All you know is that your aunt and uncle keep peeking glances at you, and there seems to be some whispering that has nothing to do with the burnt crust on the pumpkin pie.
Does this seem like how your holiday celebrations might go? If so, it’s a good idea to start preparing now by coming up with ways to combat this discomfort.
“Have a self-support plan made up of people you can talk to or things to do to help yourself feel better,” says Dr. Diane Sanford, owner of the Midwest Mind Body Health Center.
Christina Miller, a current student in the Master of Public Health program at the University at Albany, says it’s smart to plan ahead for these overwhelming situations by finding your outside support system ahead of time.
“Identify a self-care buddy. This is someone you can text, Facebook message, etc. when you are feeling overwhelmed, isolated or unsupported over the holidays,” she says. “Along with reaching out to this person during more challenging moments, you can also exchange silly Snapchats [and] pictures or play Words With Friends in a way that makes you feel supported or cared for.”
This self-care buddy can be anyone you know will be on your side. Steven Petrow, an LGBT issues columnist for The Washington Post, says, “Make sure you have an ally present—whether a friend, a sibling, one parent or another relative. Let him or her know ahead of time you may need them to speak up.”
This can mean identifying supportive family members now, even if that means turning to extended family or significant others. Review Facebook profiles—who changed their profile picture during the Human Rights Campaign’s go-red-for-marriage-equality push?
Sometimes all it takes to have a happier holiday is having a few allies in the room who can talk to you without staring at your new haircut or your outfit and commenting on how you “seem different.”
2. Stay positive
Sometimes our concerns are really just us psyching ourselves out. Maybe your family members are more supportive than you think, or maybe they’ve grown more supportive during the time that you’ve been gone at school. For some family members who are on the fence about LGBTQ+ issues, all it takes to push them toward the side of support is some time to think and research.
Dr. Sanford, who blogs about self-care, says, “Don’t make assumptions about how others will be towards you. Go into situations with a cautiously positive attitude.”
If you can, try approaching the situation with an open mind. Try not to be standoffish or to keep to yourself during family gatherings. Your assumed dislike for your family could make them respond by treating you strangely and leave you wondering if they don’t like you because of your sexuality or gender identity. Maybe all those whispers are just them wondering why you don’t seem as engaged as you used to.
Try to fill yourself with positive thoughts. “Tell yourself, ‘Peace begins with me’ when you are in a surrounding that doesn’t feel supportive,” says Anne-Sophia Reinhardt, self-love expert and blogger. “Repeat it as your mantra and say it as often as you want until you feel some relief and release of anger, pain, etc.”
Still, it’s best to remain cautious, Dr. Sanford says. Avoid throwing yourself into situations that can be potentially harmful to your emotional or physical well-being. If you’re arguing with a family member and he or she seems to be getting more and more aggressive, know it’s okay to back down. “Have an exit strategy in case problems develop,” Dr. Sanford says. Shoot a text to your ally and have him or her call you.
3. Stay healthy
With all of the stress over potential confrontation and plain awkwardness, plan on taking care of yourself mentally, emotionally and physically. Even if you can’t control the interactions you engage in or the emotional impacts of these interactions, you can control how you are taking care of yourself.
“Make sure to stay well rested, well fed and well nourished and supported in all your emotional health needs,” Dr. Sanford says. “The better you feel [in your] mind, body and spirit, the easier it will be for you to deal with whatever comes up.”
If you’re struggling with taking care of your mental and emotional self, it can be helpful to turn your attention to your body.
Miller says, “Eat the healthiest foods available to you, get a good night’s rest and exercise. Take a walk, play football with the cousins or even shovel the driveway. Feeling healthy will make it easier to deal with the stress you are experiencing.”
If you’ve taken care of yourself, you may feel more ready for confrontation if it comes (and hopefully it just won’t come at all).
4. Be prepared for confrontation if it does come
During the holidays, we often get trapped in awkward conversations with our family members. For some LGBTQ+ folks, these conversations, such as family members questioning their sexuality, can feel like attacks.
To deal with this, Reinhardt says, “Speak up for yourself. Don’t let people walk all over you.” If a family member says something problematic, call him or her out. Explain why what he or she said isn’t okay.
Petrow, author of Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners, recommends being straightforward. He says, “If someone tells an anti-LGBT joke, you can respond simply: ‘That’s not funny.’”
When it comes to surviving a nasty confrontation on the spot, Dr. Sanford says, “First, you can politely say that you do not want to talk about it and change the subject.” If your family member persists? “Tell them, ‘Not now’ firmly and walk away if you cannot get them to stop. You do not need to be abused by what others have to say, especially at the holidays.”
If speaking up is too much for you, Miller says, “Allow yourself to ‘tap out’ from conversations that are too challenging or too triggering. Sometimes we may feel the constant need to justify ourselves, our communities and/or our values to our families. That being said, you by no means must continue within conversations that feel unsafe or too draining. Sometimes self-preservation is the most effective form of rebellion.”
5. Pause and breathe
In order to survive confrontation when it does happen, try to stay calm.
“One of my most fundamental and helpful self-care practices is just to breathe,” Reinhardt says. “I take three long, deep belly breaths before I have my first cup of coffee, and it helps me to ground myself and get ready for the day. You can breathe when you get into an argument or feel like you’re not being supported. It’s a ‘quick fix’ that creates a relaxation response and helps you to stay true to yourself.”
This can especially come in handy if your family members are sitting around and talking about something that hurts your feelings, or if you’re just feeling left out. It’s harder to speak up in group settings, so it may be easiest to just focus on yourself.
6. Escape for a moment
If you can’t handle how tense things are in your household, Reinhardt says to take a walk. You have the right to escape when you feel close to exploding.
“Just leave and be with yourself for a while,” she says. “Breathe in fresh air, notice what happens around you, hear new sounds and feel your feet on the ground.”
Miller says you can do anything “that you enjoy and that reinforces your you-ness. If you feel stressed out or even as though you cannot be your complete self at home, doing activities that put you in touch with the things you love about yourself will help you to stay grounded.”
Try going for a run, practicing yoga or heading out for a solo shopping spree. Why not get a break from your family members under the guise of enjoying the outdoors or the holiday sales?
7. Have a backup plan
If all else fails, it’s best to have a backup plan.
“Hopefully the stress during the holidays will not escalate into an unsafe situation, but if possible, it’s best to have a few numbers stored in your cell phone … of a friend or friend of a friend you may be able to crash with if you need to get out,” Miller says.
If you feel close to the edge or even in danger with the extent of homophobia or transphobia in your household, know that you have the right to escape. Be sure to check in with your friends if you start feeling really uncomfortable with your situation, and try not to feel guilty for not managing to stick with your family throughout the holidays. Sometimes you have to put yourself before others, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
We hope that these tips make the holidays more bearable. Remember—you need to take care of yourself!