Dealing with Family at Holiday Get-Togethers

Artwork by Sarah Vanell

Artwork by Sarah Vanell

Do you long for that connected, loving family feeling at holiday get-togethers? Are you instead disappointed, frustrated or hurt, wondering why your family gatherings resemble a horror film more than a Hallmark movie? Navigating family gatherings can be challenging in general, but particularly around the holidays when expectations and pressure to feel close and happy are high.

Dread no more! Here are some ideas to help you feel more peaceful before during and after the family function.


It’s almost a given that when surrounded by family – even for an evening -- we fall back into the same relational patterns that were in place when we lived with our family – and those can sometimes be dysfunctional. If your family members tend to engage in the same old negative patterns of relating to each other whenever you gather, think about what those are, and how you play into the system. By identifying your family’s patterns and your role in them, at the time of the event you can be conscious and mindful about not falling into your childhood or adolescent role. Remind yourself that back in your current life you wear your “adult hat”. Commit to yourself that you will keep it on during the event.

Write a Gratitude List

Before the event, put yourself in a positive frame of mind by writing a list of things related to your family that you are grateful for.

Be Prepared

Know your Triggers

You may be triggered by Mom pushing food on you, or by Uncle Larry asking you for the 10th year running when you’re going to get married. Prepare by writing a list of triggering behaviors in you relatives and brainstorm how you will handle them so you are not caught off-guard – which is when we tend to respond impulsively. Ask a friend for help if you are stumped. A pal can see the situation more objectively and will likely offer a simple solution.

Message Points

Do you feel anxious about being put on the spot, like by Uncle Larry, or do you feel you need something exceptional to report to people you haven’t seen for the past year…and nothing exceptional has happened? Before your family function, prepare some message points about yourself you feel comfortable sharing, so again, you are not caught like a deer in headlights, and don’t leave regretting how you answered (or didn’t answer) relatives’ queries. One or two bullet points should satisfy their curiosity If you’re not feeling incredibly accomplished, keep it impersonal: tell them about a vacation you took, a visit to see other family members, or what your kids are doing. Pictures are great too.


And to further take the focus off yourself, prepare some questions for you to ask your family. People love to hear themselves talk, so take advantage!

Why we have Two Ears and One Mouth

Prioritize listening over talking. You don’t have to spill your guts just because you think you’re “supposed to” be close since “they are family…”

Avoid Arguments

There’s an old saying: “Would you rather be right or be happy?” You may be convinced your political views are the only decent ones, and your opposite-side-of-the-fence aunt thinks the same. She can air her views – which may be very distasteful to you – but you don’t need to engage in an argument, or even a conversation about them! Listen politely (or tune it out) and then move onto the next subject. You are not condoning her views, just keeping the peace…and protecting your serenity.

Take What you Like and Leave the Rest

Having too high expectations for that Hallmark family experience can lead to major disappointment and even anger during or after an event. Try to keep your expectations more realistic and actively look for things you appreciate in your family members -- even if it’s just that they make the effort to maintain the tradition of gathering once a year. If you start to notice all the things that aggravate you, think about why you are here: to reconnect, catch up, see how the kids have grown, give a hug, or see an older relative who you may not be seeing for too many more of these events. You can also get involved with the kids, help clear the table or do the dishes to change your negative perspective.

Detach with Love

If, despite your best efforts, you are still having a hard time tolerating your family, take a play from the Al-anon book and “detach with love,” You can make a decision to maintain your peace of mind no matter what is happening around you. Put up your invisible protective layer so you can listen and watch politely, without becoming involved emotionally. It’s perfectly okay – even preferable – to love your family and not participate in their drama.

Practice gratitude again!

When you leave your family get-together, make another gratitude list. This time, how about sharing some of your entries in a follow-up call or email with the family members in question? It can really promote closeness and connection with each other.

It’s funny how it works, but cultivating qualities such as awareness, detachment and gratitude may just lead you to feel more close and connected to your family so you can wake up the next morning – maybe having eaten too much – but without an emotional hangover.

Author: Kayla Schwartz, LMSW, Clinical Associate