Year after year, despite the burdensome preparations for hosts and crowded schedules of guests, families across the world come together to celebrate the holidays. Yet for many, attending or hosting a family gathering can feel like navigating a minefield.
Families are systems and, like all systems, resist change. Old patterns often emerge, bringing with them previous wounds and unresolved conflicts. Knowing that this can happen, and having a strategy prepared if it does, can help you feel less anxious before a family gathering and more empowered during one.
Though memories of previous debacles and visions of new fiascoes may make us wary of facing the challenge, these practical tips can help you face your next family get-together with renewed confidence and skill. Taking proactive action to reduce the potential for awkward situations or blowups can enhance your peace of mind as you enter the holiday season. All that’s required is a willingness to plan mentally and stick to your strategy.
- Plan sufficient down time to allow for refueling and privacy needs. You may be having a full house. You probably have at least a few family members with strong personalities. “Space” is not just a matter of physical location – it’s a time issue too. Making sure not to over-pack your schedules can go a long way toward reducing tension and stress when everyone gets together.
- Consider a “no tech” rule for meals or other times when your family will be together. Many families have found that limiting the ubiquitous presence of tech devices can prevent hurt feelings and ruffled feathers. It’s also a powerful tool to create opportunities for positive and meaningful interactions.
- Designate certain topics ahead of time as out of bounds. Some topics, like controversial political issues, are obvious red zones. Others, such as a past feud or financial disagreement, may be unique to a particular family. Each family member may have his or her individual sensitivities or triggers too. Avoiding these topics can reduce the likelihood of tense moments or blowups.
- Have a mantra prepared in advance to say to yourself, such as “This is about him/her; it’s is not about me.” Though grownups on the outside, many adults still bear the hurts and rivalries of childhood, and returning home can be like turning sixteen again. Anger and resentments over situations and events you may have assumed were long forgotten can surface, making you feel blindsided. A mantra can help you avoid taking the bait.
- Plan a response to say out loud too, such as “I’ve left that battle behind.” Aside from the numerous suitcases that gather in hallways and corners, family members often bring emotional baggage with them too. Prior grudges can reemerge unexpectedly. Having a response ready for such moments can help you avoid rehashing negative events.
These five practical strategies can reduce potential tension and conflict, and enhance the possibility of joy. Of course, additional limits may be important for a particular family and its cast of characters.
My parting piece of advice is perhaps the most important one of all: Be kind to yourself. Lists of self-care strategies abound. Find the ones that work for you and don’t hesitate to set the limits you need. You can’t be everything to everyone. You need to save some energy for yourself.
Have compassion for yourself as you do for others, nourish the connections you value, and enjoy the holidays!
About the Author
Arlene Etengoff holds an MA in Clinical Psychology and recently retired from a distinguished career in social services. She is currently a young adult novelist, grandmother extraordinaire, and the veteran host of countless family gatherings.