5 tips to help make your family gatherings a little less fraught

Ahh, the holidays: That wonderful time of year when families are brought together in the spirit of joy and grateful celebration. When generations can bond over lovingly prepared food and participate in traditions that hark back to the times when things were simpler.

Sometimes, though, the reality is that we don’t live in a Hallmark movie. We don’t all have matching pajamas (despite what Facebook tells you), and we can’t always participate in a family gathering without some kind of conflict. So here are a few ways to make the holidays a little more It’s A Wonderful Life and a little less National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. 

Ask for Support

This goes for everyone. If you’re the host, you may feel as if you have to do everything, and if it’s an extended holiday visit, that is a lot. There are sleep accommodations, food requirements, the holiday itself, entertaining several generations under one roof… it’s enough to make us sweat just thinking about it. Or perhaps you are a guest but you have reason to feel that you’re not accepted in some way, or you just know that there will be a conflict between you and another family member. Asking for support is key. Make an alliance. Delegate responsibilities. Reach out to someone who you can trust and ask for what you need, whether it’s moral support in an emotionally fraught environment or simply assistance in the kitchen. 

Take Care of Your Own Needs 

This follows closely on the heels of asking for support, but it’s a little more proactive solution. Consider it our holiday version of putting on your own gas mask first. 

The most obvious example is for those with dietary needs or restrictions: when in doubt, bring your own food. If your host is at all considerate they will try to accommodate dietary needs in whatever way they can, but as a guest, you can alleviate some of that strain by at least offering to bring something that you know you will enjoy. Whether you’re vegan or gluten-free, this will help reduce stress for the host, and you won’t leave a holiday hungry because everyone forgot you’re allergic to pepper.

This advice doesn’t just apply to food, though. For example, if you know you need your daily jog or else you turn into the Grinch, make it clear that you need time to accomplish your goals. Carve out a time that won’t interfere with family plans and then when you can enjoy some exercise announce your intentions, and then go. Everyone will be happier for it. 

Set Realistic Expectations 

Families are incredible organisms that grow and change and reflect the shared experiences of all the members. They can also be a seemingly arbitrary gathering of people who have significantly diverse moral, social, and political leanings. Go into your family holiday get-togethers with realistic expectations. If you know your extended family has very different political views (for example) then don’t attend Thanksgiving expecting to discuss the latest current events without creating conflict. If you have a family member who always over-indulges and inevitably creates drama by the night’s end, don’t somehow think things will be different this year. Approach the gathering braced with your knowledge of past experiences so that you aren’t disappointed when it happens…again. 

Plan Ahead for Family Holidays

Having a plan can prevent all kinds of fiascos, even if your family isn’t that hard to be around. Make sure you have ideas for occupying the time that you are all together because nothing breeds conflict better than boredom. That said, make sure you’re not too committed to those plans. Sometimes people don’t feel like having an agenda, and that’s okay. Be prepared to be flexible.

If you’re truly dreading a family get-together, odds are that you already know exactly what it is that makes them terrible. For example, a friend of mine always hated any gathering her aunt attended because she would go out of her way to tell my friend she was overweight. (It goes without saying that her aunt is awful.) So our advice to her is: be prepared. Have responses ready for the triggering comments or events, so that when they do occur you don’t even have to think about it. The less you have to process the awful thing, the better.

Limit Together-Time 

Depending on the level of your family’s dysfunctionality, maybe the best idea is to limit the time you all spend together. If you’re visiting for a few days or more, make plans for activities or events where you’re not necessarily interacting: go see a movie, or a museum, or volunteer to take just the kids somewhere. It’s important to take a break from each other no matter how much love you share because too much together time can be dangerous. If it’s a single-day event it’s much easier to just tolerate whatever it is that drives you nuts, but make sure you have an escape plan. Nothing is worse than being ready to leave, and then hearing your ride ask for another drink.

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