Sunday, November 2, 2014

Difficult Relatives at Thanksgiving: Surviving the Family Gathering with DBT Skills (Part I)

The holidays are a stressful time for many, but those with difficult, narcissistic, or judgmental family members may have an especially difficult time.  Rather than living the theme of gratitude that Thanksgiving might ideally be about, you may find yourself having trouble setting boundaries with your family member and having them respected.  Fortunately, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) offers several skills that can be particularly helpful so that you can spend time with your family, enjoy the Thanksgiving meal, and maybe even be glad you showed up.

Marsha Linehan's just-released second edition of the DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets includes a skill that had been in use for several years among people struggling with substance abuse problems, but never before officially incorporated into the DBT model. The skill is called "alternate rebellion."  Essentially, the idea is that rather than rebelling in a destructive way (i.e., problem drinking, drug use, and other types of self-harm), you can find a non-harmful way to assert your individuality so you are not completely complying with the dynamics of the situation that you may not like. You might wear a brightly colored undergarment, for example, or express your political views more strongly than you usually do, or something else that allows the day to be more "you."  (Let me know in the comments what you think of!)  In your mind you can refer back to this rebellious act when you find your difficult relative making everything about them.

Another DBT skill that can be very useful with family members is validation.  (Alan Fruzzetti's The High Conflict Couple provides an excellent explanation of DBT's six levels of validation as they apply in close relationships).  The idea is to find the kernel of truth in your family member's experience and reflect back how what you are hearing makes sense.  You don't have to (and it would not help to) validate what is wrong, distorted, or dysfunctional. But if you can find that "nugget of gold in the bucket of sand," as we DBT therapists love to say, you will be better able to relate to your difficult or narcissistic relative. Perhaps more importantly, you may find yourself feeling more empathy and less anger.

UPDATE: Part 2 of this post is now available.


  1. Jeremy this was very user friendly and I understood the concept. I now have some new tools to use in my practice.

  2. Thanks for these tips! Very practical and useful for dealing with emotionally challenging interactions with family members.

  3. Thanks, Rolanda and Laura, for stopping by! I'm glad you found this useful.


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