5 strategies for surviving difficult family gatherings
The holidays are traditionally a time for family and togetherness. This is the time of year when most people value fellowship, revisit their traditions and try to focus on the importance of helping others. But, with the holidays also comes the stress of managing expectations and relationships. The hustle and bustle around scheduling, meal preparation and meeting everyone’s needs can prove stressful.
Each year, families of all shapes and sizes gather together to celebrate. With these gatherings, no doubt, comes those family members who are more difficult to manage. Unfortunately, with the level of stress that is naturally a part of holiday preparation, adding in those who tend to create conflict can be a toxic concoction if we are not prepared to mitigate any issues that arise. There are certainly ways of effectively dealing with problematic family members, even in the midst of holiday stress.
1. Set boundaries. Both physical and emotional boundaries help to prevent undue stress. Physical boundaries can be set by giving a set start and finish time to holiday activities. If there are family members who tend to push boundaries by overstaying their welcome, then be sure to clearly communicate a start/end time and stick to it. Also, if there are family members visiting from out of town who tend to create conflict, then don’t feel obligated to have them stay the night in your home. While we sometimes interpret this as being unwelcoming, it is important to remember that, if their constant presence induces stress on your immediate family, then the healthy and kind choice is protecting the boundaries of those closest to you.
Regarding emotional boundaries, avoid discussing triggering topics and don’t repeat unhealthy communication patterns. Holidays are not the time to rehash old conflicts and, if a person brings up an emotionally provocative topic, shut it down. You don’t have to engage in discussion that is unsettling or uncomfortable. There is a time and a place for difficult conversation and conflict resolution, but that time and place is not around the dinner table.
2.Limit alcohol. While a glass of wine, or 3, may seem like an effective way of dealing with stress, the truth is that alcohol can actually increase the likelihood of conflict. With excessive alcohol intake comes lower inhibitions and blurred boundaries. Those family members who tend to start conflict may be even more apt do so if they have been partaking in the spiked punch. And, because alcohol is a natural depressant, overdoing it can contribute to feelings of sadness and disappointment.
3.Set realistic expectations. With social media and the vast number of websites, magazines, and books on throwing the perfect party, we create lofty expectations that are most often difficult to meet. There will, no doubt, be problematic personalities to manage when you gather a large number of people together. So, if we expect that things will go perfectly and without a hitch, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Know that turkeys may get too done, people who committed to come may not show up and children (or adults) will argue. And, the family members who typically say or do things that disappoint others will likely do the same this year, too. Managing our expectations around these things includes expecting and accepting that these issues will arise.
4. Don’t go for perfection, go for connection. Reconnect to your values and with your family. Remember why you celebrate the holidays and, when stress arises, focus on those values. Don’t get too sidetracked with trying to recreate a magazine cover in your dining room, but instead, remember what is most important to you and repeat those values to yourself throughout the day. Be mindful that there may be a family member who can distract you from those values with negativity or criticism, but don’t allow that distraction to happen. Unfortunately, we cannot change how others behave, but we can control our responses to their behavior. So, instead of reacting to and engaging in discord, during this time of year, we can excuse ourselves from dealing with that conflict and, instead, focus on healthy connection.
5. Have healthy coping skills. Take care of yourself, both emotionally and physically. Be mindful of your needs and ensure that you are carving out time to meet them. Exercise, adequate sleep, and a well-balanced diet are effective ways of preventing and coping with stress. Most importantly, if there are difficult family members, ensure that you are taking a break from them. If being alone allows you to recharge, make sure that you excuse yourself to re-center yourself and regroup. Or, if you need the camaraderie of friends and family who play an important role in helping you to feel supported, then make sure that you are making ample time for those healthier, supportive and rewarding relationships.