If family gatherings are stressful—here’s what to do


November 25, 2019

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Growing up, holiday parties were always big family affairs. I have a large extended family, with a dozen aunts & uncles (and even more cousins). Think standing room only in the kitchen, kids weaving through the maze of adults, laughter rising above the buzz of conversation & more Italian food than you could stomach. 

As a kid, holiday parties were all fun and games. I was too busy playing with new toys, swiping cookies and unwrapping presents to notice or care about anything else going on. But now as an adult, I realize that family gatherings are not always simple affairs. 

Eventually, I got married, and so my family has grown even more (my husband is one of 10!). Just like when I was a kid, whenever we get together with family for the holidays, there are usually a LOT of people around—all with different personalities, interests, and perspectives.

I truly believe that having a large family is a huge blessing, but relationships can be complicated, even with those we love the most! Having so many people all in one place can easily lead to fatigue or confrontation. 

There are times when issues with our families are more serious—crossing personal boundaries on an intrusive level or requiring professional help—but even if you have the usual, mostly functional family like mine, there is bound to be differences in lifestyle or point of view that can cause tension. 

No family is perfect, and you might not be able to agree on everything, but your differences don’t have to compromise your celebrations.

Here are a few things I try to remember over the holidays to keep family gatherings as peaceful as possible: 

01. Take nothing personally.

Repeat after me: Take nothing personally. This can be tough, but around the holidays in particular, it’s really important to take these words to heart. When someone is less than kind to us, we may wonder if it is something we did or said, but more often than not it isn’t about us at all. This time of year can be challenging for people for many reasons. It’s important to check your baggage and your ego at the door and give your loved ones the benefit of the doubt.

02. Focus on what you have in common, and avoid any “hot topics”.

It’s an inescapable fact that the years bring change and family is no exception to this rule. Instead of focusing on differences, remember why you’re all coming together. Avoid talking about political or religious differences. And if you sense the conversation going in the wrong direction, try to find common ground, and politely redirect the topic to something less controversial without shutting down or embarrassing anyone. Instead, focus on what you DO enjoy doing together, keeping up old traditions, and creating new memories. Even if your lives have grown in different directions, you still have roots that connect you.

03. Consider a “ditch the phones” rule. 

Whether you’re the host or the guest, nothing says “don’t talk to me” like staring down at a screen. Being on your phone a lot sends the message that there’s somewhere else you’d rather be (even if it’s not intentional). It’s distracting and makes it hard to truly talk and connect. So from a personal standpoint, if you know you’ve got a habit of checking your phone a lot, plan to make your social posts and happy holiday texts in the morning and save the calls for later. 

If your extended family tends to be attached to their phones, consider asking everyone to keep their devices in the car during visits or to keep their cells at bay by setting a “no phone zone” in your home. You could even designate a cell phone basket where everyone can stash their phones together. 

04. Don’t stress over the little stuff.

Don’t blow a fuse if your holiday isn’t picture perfect. No one will remember the stain on Junior’s shirt or your hair falling flat, but believe me, they will remember the time you stormed out and ruined dinner! Sometimes we need to be willing to let the less important things slide, so that we can all have a calmer day.

05. Be yourself & let others be themselves too. 

If you’re struggling with a particular family member, remember this: a family party is not the time or place for changing minds, but to appreciate your loved ones for where and how they are in that moment. Work out issues before gathering if possible and use the event as a chance to schedule a time to talk at a later date. 

If you’re truly struggling with a particular family member, and you know that an issue might arise during your get-together, you may consider putting a limit on your time visiting. 

06. Gather together to pray and to be thankful.

Pray over your meal. Thank God for your family and let them hear it. Go around the room to say what you are thankful for. This helps focus everyone on what good things they have in their lives, and can help diffuse tension.

There are so many families who can’t gather due to loss or distance … so many people who long for a family to annoy them. If you’re fortunate enough to have loved ones, try your best to enjoy them!

At the end of the day, the golden rule is golden for a reason. Treat others the way you would want to be treated, and that includes loving them for who they are, even with their differences and imperfections. 

Let your family feel loved and welcomed in your home, and let them leave with a feeling of love and kindness that they will carry beyond your gathering into their worlds and lives. With a bit of planning, kindness and yes, a cookie or two, the holidays can feel more like the carefree ones that we remember.

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