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Naughty or Nice: Navigating Family Gatherings During the Holidays

When I was a child I loved my family's holiday gatherings. They were filled with excitement, magic, and anticipation. Family gatherings meant that I would get to buy a new holiday outfit, eat delicious food, and exchange gifts. I had the experience of having parents with different cultural backgrounds so I got to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, which doubled the excitement. Every year I would look forward to my extended family Christmas and Hanukkah parties. I still look forward to these events with anticipation today, but, now that I am an adult, I struggle to find the same magic and excitement. I still enjoy seeing family, but now I do not have the rose colored glasses of childhood that were hiding the more difficult aspects of family togetherness.

The reality is that bringing a family together doesn’t always go smoothly. It can be difficult to maintain healthy boundaries with family members. We bring together people who have different opinions and experiences and who feel comfortable arguing with each other. People might drink too much, ask too many personal questions, or compete over who has accomplished more with their life.

This might sound familiar to your experience. If you leave family gatherings feeling emotionally drained and missing the magic of the holidays, this article might help. There are some things that we can do to help ourselves navigate these situations easier. Of course we cannot change our family members and unfortunately we can’t always access the wonderment of the holidays that we possessed as children. But we can work on managing our expectations for the event, staying emotionally regulated, approaching tough conversations with curiosity, and finding humor in tense situations.

Manage Expectations:

Before you even attend family gatherings, take a moment to engage in some reflection about what you are expecting to encounter when you see family. It can be difficult to find the middle path between optimism and pessimism sometimes. On one hand, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything will go smoothly. While it is great to maintain a positive outlook, if we are too optimistic we might ignore the potential obstacles we will face, and, therefore, we are caught by surprise. We might leave the family gathering feeling let down that things didn’t go as well as we planned.

The pendulum can swing too far over to the other side too, though. If we focus too much on what we think will go wrong, sometimes we show up in a mood that is already on edge and we might become the culprits of the family conflict. We can give our family members a chance to prove our assumptions wrong. Just as we pick up and react to our relatives' moods, they are doing the same to our attitude too. If you come into the situation already geared up for a fight, then it is far more likely a conflict will arise.

The middle path is thinking about what could potentially happen and being prepared to handle it, while still maintaining the hope that we won’t need to use our plans at all. For example, let's say that you have a family member who asks invasive questions about your personal life. Finding the middle path of realism means that you prepare how you want to answer those questions, but you don’t walk in the door ready for battle. You put those boundary enforcing responses in your back pocket for when you need them and enjoy the conversation until then. An example of a great answer to an invasive question is to simply state, “I appreciate your curiosity but I am not comfortable talking about that right now,” and changing the subject.

Another thing you can prepare in advance is having a clear exit plan with your partner if you are attending together. You can set a time that you want to depart ahead of your arrival or you can develop a signal or code word/phrase that will clue your partner in that you are ready to leave. It is important to know your limits, whether that is a limit on how long you can stay at an event or whether you can tolerate certain conversation topics.

Regulate Yourself:

Unfortunately, we cannot control our family members. The only person in a crowded room that we can control is ourselves and it is our responsibility to regulate ourselves. I hear pushback to this from clients who often say, “Why should I regulate myself when my parents/grandparent/uncle/cousin doesn’t do that?” I get it. It is frustrating to do the self-development work or go to therapy when our family members don’t do the same and we experience the consequences. But emotional regulation is not for the benefit of the other person…the benefit is for you.

Emotional dysregulation is when we lose control of our emotions and we behave in a way that we might not typically. Some people experience dysregulation more than others but everyone has become dysregulated at some point in their lives. In kids, dysregulation looks like meltdowns or tantrums, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t experience this as adults. When we are dysregulated we start to feel our emotions more intensely and may even lose control of them. We might have an anger outburst or start to feel anxious. If you have ever been in a situation with your family where you are starting to feel ‘on edge,’ this is the beginning stage of when we start to become dysregulated. This is also a great warning sign that you need to take some space to collect yourself.

When you notice that you are beginning to feel anxious or angry, take a moment to remove yourself from the situation that is causing the stress. You can make an excuse to use the restroom, offer to do a store run if the host needs something, or pretend to take a phone call outside. When you have private space, take a moment to engage in some deep breathing exercises. Sometimes I even play a game on my phone to distract my brain which helps me calm down. Taking this space for yourself is an act of self-care because it gives you an opportunity to collect your thoughts and calm your body and brain. You will have avoided losing control of your emotions or reacting in a way that you will later feel frustrated or even regretful about.

Approach With Curiosity:

Do you have those moments when you are talking with a family member where you think, “how can they think or say that?” We feel baffled on how our family can have such different opinions, and it is particularly hard when a family member shares an ideology that is in direct opposition to our own beliefs. Most family gatherings involve a full spectrum of generations, spanning from the Silent Generation down to Generation Alpha. When you have such a vast age range of folks coming together, it is easy for us to lack an understanding of why our family members think and behave the way they do. It is far easier to react to anger and disbelief by confronting and arguing with our family members than it is to approach them with curiosity.

When we approach with curiosity rather than contempt, we reduce the chances that our family member will become defensive. We can engage in a more meaningful conversation where both sides might learn something new from each other, or at least it is more likely that your family member will listen and acknowledge your viewpoint. It is difficult to change another person’s belief system and unlikely that you will be able to do that in one conversation. People who do change or develop their opinions and values do so over a longer period of time and usually their ways of thinking are challenged by new understandings of other people’s lived experiences. By being curious about why your family members think the way they do, you are not subscribing or agreeing to their views. You do not have to agree with someone in order to be curious or understand why they think the way they do.

One reason that approaching with curiosity can be difficult is because we are often experiencing a primary and secondary emotion and thought process when arguing about politics or social topics with our family members. On the surface we feel angry about our parent supporting a political candidate that we find to be a threat to our wellbeing or identity. But what might be deeper than that? When our parents think or vote in opposition to us, it forces us to realize that the people who are supposed to protect and advocate for us are no longer looking out for our best interests, but instead looking out for themselves. Becoming adult children of our parents requires some mourning at the loss of our parents understanding, and even empathy at times. We are no longer their first priority and it can be upsetting when we realize that our parents do not understand our lived experiences–especially the negative ones. Naturally this grief, anger, and sadness can bubble up to the surface and make it so easy to argue with our parents over these topics. We still want them to hear and understand us, just as we did when we were kids, but they cannot fully listen to us if we are putting them on the defensive. That is where approaching with curiosity becomes your tool for getting more quality out of difficult conversations with your family.

Find Humor And Positivity:

Managing your expectations, regulating yourself, and approaching with curiosity require

a large amount of intentionality. These are conscious decisions and behaviors that you are making to keep yourself grounded. Sometimes we need to balance that seriousness with some lightheartedness. If your family is anything like mine, they can be pretty predictable at times, and one thing that I have found to help me navigate uncomfortable family gatherings is to channel that predictability into Family Gathering BINGO.

The act of thinking up the BINGO squares is not only fun, but also gives you an opportunity to laugh about the unique things that make up your family traditions. Maybe you have an aunt that always wears the same Christmas sweater, or a cousin that arrives so late the food is almost cold. These are the things that make your family who they are, even if they can be annoying sometimes. You can even add some of the more tense things to your BINGO–maybe someone in your family does say something racist, or asks inappropriate questions. It is a little easier to regulate through the anger when you and your partner, siblings, or cousins are all trying to get BINGO first. Sometimes we want to actively challenge and confront things, but sometimes we just want to passively get through the evening and not cause any waves. You can at least have some fun with it!

Another way to balance the tension with relief is to take time to find the positives at your family gatherings. It can be easy to get stuck in a brain process called filtering, where we focus so much on the negative that we ignore or miss the positive. If we focus too much on the things that bother us, we discount the things we enjoyed–the good food, the joy of watching kids open presents, the stories of our family members achievements, or simply taking time to be grateful for the family that is still with us after the last few years of the pandemic.

The last tip for navigating family gatherings is remembering that you always have the choice on whether you attend or not. If your family functions in a way that is too harmful or detrimental to your mental health, you have the right to put up a boundary and not attend. Sometimes your family might be fine, but there are logistical difficulties. Sometimes traveling hours by car, or plane, causes too many disruptions to your routine and can be stressful. For some families, you might be expected to travel to multiple houses for gatherings in the same day which is exhausting for you and your children. It is okay to decide what works best for your immediate family, and that might be not attending the family gathering at all.

Our family gatherings do not need to be perfect to be meaningful and enjoyable. By relaxing our expectations for these events we also make it easier for us to view the overall experience as positive. When we prioritize our own emotional regulation, we can stay present and calm for our partner and children which impacts their own experiences of these events, too. We can also walk away from the event feeling some pride in now letting our family members hold the power over our emotions or behaviors, which is truly a gift that you can give yourself this holiday season.

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