Whether it’s a great-uncle with a laundry list of health complaints, a niece with a multilevel marketing pitch, a cousin with a conspiracy theory, or that one louder-than-necessary aunt, family get-togethers have a reputation for creating uncomfortable moments.
“Family gatherings, especially around the holidays, can elicit a range of responses including stress, sadness, isolation, even in a crowd, and grief, particularly as we observe those who can’t join in this year’s celebrations,” said Psychologist Geoffrey Schaubhut, PhD, from Park Street Clinic in Lebanon. “Gatherings bring together a lot of different people with different motivations and expectations, and sometimes a history of hurt. These factors can make it more difficult to get along.”
Dr. Schaubhut outlined ways you can make your next family get-together less challenging so you can focus more on appreciating the moment.
1. Set a Boundary Before You Arrive
According to Dr. Schaubhut, a discussion establishing a clearly agreed-upon boundary prior to the holiday is essential; this may include deciding ahead of time how long you will stay at the event. If everyone else is staying overnight and you’ve decided three hours is your max, that’s for you to decide and you don’t have to feel guilty if a family member uses social pressure in attempting to get you to stay longer. Having communicated your plans ahead of time will manage other’s reaction(s) when you leave after dessert.
You can also think about the topics you’re willing to discuss with family, especially things that have caused arguments or hurt feelings in the past. For example, just because someone brings up your relationship status, job or living situation, it doesn’t mean you have to talk about it.
“Often a polite deflection will deter more distant relatives, but close family can sometimes be pushier because they feel entitled to your information,” said Dr. Schaubhut.
Instead, you can kindly but firmly answer with, “I appreciate your interest, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Has anyone seen the score of the game?”
2. Accept People for Who They Are
Sometimes family gatherings can be painful because we so desperately want the people in our lives to be different. This can lead to disappointment.
“Wanting approval and acceptance from our families is a natural human need, though can lead to unrealistic and unhealthy expectations that drive attempts to change the people in our lives, even though they may be unwanted,” said Dr. Schaubhut.
Today may not be the day your mother approves of your weight, your brother has empathy for the hard time you’re going through or your adult children like your date.
“Take a little time to feel sad and grieve the fact that your family can’t fulfill this need for you,” recommended Dr. Schaubhut. “Then, think about the qualities they do possess that could support you in enjoying those aspects of their company.”
3. Be Interested, Not Invested
“You just transferred all your retirement savings into collectible sneakers? That sounds interesting – tell me more about this investment decision.”
It can be hard to listen to people we love make decisions we don’t agree with or express opinions different from our own. Though we are all entitled to our opinions and judgments, recognize that these spaces are mostly for catching up with the family you are choosing to surround yourself with. Attempt to lead with questions.
“Think of yourself as an investigator attempting to piece together a complex case,” said Dr. Schaubhut. “Take a step back and remind yourself that you can manage the impact the outcome has on you. You don’t need to get involved in the sneaker Ponzi scheme. Attempt to enjoy the chance to learn more about this person and what’s happening in their life.”
4. Stick to Neutral Topics
If you are someone who enjoys a lively debate or finds it interesting to hear others’ views on current events, it may be difficult to enjoy small talk. However not every subject is appropriate dinner conversation, especially in a group setting. You probably have a good idea of the hot-button topics in your family that are likely to devolve into inappropriate, hurtful, or even hateful discussion.
“Do some planning beforehand and have five to ten neutral topics or conversation starters in your back pocket,” recommended Dr. Schaubhut.
“Simple conversations about the weather, sports, favorite shows and the new light in town are seriously undervalued as polite topics of conversation. You can also ask about funny family stories from childhood, what their first car, job, pet was or about someone’s pandemic puppy or hobby,” Dr. Schaubhut said.
If you are involved in a conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable and your heart rate starts to rise or you break into a sweat, it means you need a break. Excuse yourself to a different room for five minutes to calm down – and maybe give the topic a chance to change.
5. Think of What You Can Bring
“Recognize the expectations you are setting, as the flawless and fabulous holiday moment may not be altogether realistic. Expectations may also lead to a more passive style of engagement. Instead of thinking about what you are (or are not) getting out of the gathering, think about what you can bring to it and actively find your joy in the moment,” suggested Dr. Schaubhut.
Maybe you can bring some kindness and understanding to an in-law who always sits on the sidelines, maybe you can bring compliments and gratitude to your frazzled hosts or maybe you can bring the activities that help the family start a new holiday tradition.
“Changing your mindset and approaching the event as a chance to support others can help you feel good afterward, no matter what happens,” said Dr. Schaubhut.
6. Find Humor in the Situation
Your father-in-law criticized your kids and your parenting. Your sister brought her own pie because yours aren’t quite like how Mom used to make them. Your aunt drank too much and insulted practically everyone.
“These examples likely are not funny as they are occurring, though the use of humor in re-telling these stories can help you transition mortifying moments into funny anecdotes that have less power to make you feel bad,” said Dr. Schaubhut.
It can help to debrief with a like-minded family member or close friend, and you may discover that you are not alone in experiencing challenging moments with your family. “Validation and support in finding the lightness in family struggles can be the most important part of planning an enjoyable holiday gathering,” said Dr. Schaubhut.
7. Focus on Connecting
This is the true essence of gatherings, at the holidays or any other time.
“Connecting with others is a core part of who we are as people, and that connectedness has been harder to achieve since the pandemic started,” said Dr. Schaubhut. “There is no such thing as a perfect family or a perfect holiday, so do your best in letting go of that dream. Shifting your focus on appreciating this time and having shared moments together can help you and your family create an enjoyable holiday, whatever that looks like.”
The holidays can look different after the loss of a loved one. Learn more about the holidays and grief.