Navigating Family Dynamics

Navigating Family Dynamics

Each year the holiday season arrives bringing a lot of festive gift giving along with a multitude of opportunities for stress and anxiety. Among the top holiday stressors: finances (50%), shopping (46%) and family events (33%). That last one may come as a bit of a surprise. What makes the mere thought of family gatherings so stressful? It’s simply that we don’t live in the world where all that is wrong can be made right over one glorious family dinner as the movie makers would have you believe.

As the saying goes, you always hurt the ones you love. Rare is the family that doesn’t have some sort of underlying drama. Unresolved hurt in life just doesn’t go away that quickly. This year we have the added angst of the election and pandemic. Both topics conjure up strong feelings that are sure to linger beyond any vote or vaccine. Yet as we get older, we recognize the importance of spending time with family. So we pledge to make an appearance and hope for the best.

While you can’t control what others say or do at these gatherings, you can work to control your own reactions. Here are some coping strategies that can help you through stressful family situations.

Before heading to the event, set your boundaries. Whether you have a well meaning grandparent who wants to know why you aren’t married or the aunt who is concerned about your relationship with your sister, you can plan ahead to side-step these land mines. You could respond, for example, with “That’s not something I want to talk about right now. Maybe I can give you a call, and we can catch up later.”

Another idea is to go in with the perspective of an observer. You’re there just to watch. You’ll get more enjoyment out of the day by making fun observations (that you keep to yourself, of course). Maybe your father insists on watching football but falls asleep during the game. Or your brother goes to great lengths to make sure the different foods don’t touch each other on the plate. These are the little things that make us unique and interesting.

When in the midst of family, it’s easy to fall back on childhood memories for conversation. Tread lightly here. Avoid telling stories about family members when the theme or outcome is not kind, good-natured or loving. Telling the wrong kind of family stories can lead to arguments, hurt feelings or embarrassment.

Make it a point not to criticize, condemn or complain. Whether the turkey is dry or the niece and nephew are out of control, bite your tongue. When you’re with family, it’s so easy to fall into those familiar patterns and not censor yourself. Instead, look at those moments and find something to be thankful for.

Remember to take a time out for yourself. Taking a walk in the fresh air can help you regain perspective and rejoin the group refreshed. If that’s not possible, try to find a quiet corner where you can meditate for a few minutes. Mindful breathing exercises can also help you regain your inner strength.

Maybe this is the year you don’t want to attend the gathering. With the pandemic it’s certainly understandable. And if you have relatives with strong political beliefs on both sides of the aisle, it may be a bit dicey this year. Although 55% of Americans still plan to travel for the holiday, many are rethinking the holiday and planning for smaller Thanksgiving gatherings. You could offer to make visits on another day when the extended family won’t be around.

If you’re going to host the event this year let everyone know the rules of the day in advance. If you hate holding food for late-comers, tell everyone that dinner starts at 6 with or without them. If you know one relative has a challenge when it comes to alcohol, maybe you’ll make this a dry feast. Or maybe you just want to make sure everyone is present in the moment, so all electronic devices are banned during the meal.  No matter how you plan to celebrate, remember to mask up and make this a “hugless” event.

Bottom line: Try to go out of your way to be nice to everyone at family gatherings. After all, you may not be able to pick your family, but on the other hand, they’re also pretty much irreplaceable, too. Go in with the expectation that things will go well. By having a positive mindset and kindness in your heart, you’ll have a great time.