The Survivor's Guide to Communicating & Coping at Family Gatherings

The holidays are nearly upon us and chances are we are all grappling with balancing pandemic stress and family expectations. Making this prime time for awkward and potentially triggering moments with family members who are opinionated and curious about your love life and more than willing to spew their beliefs. It doesn't have to be so stressful if you come prepared! Here is your survival guide.

1. Prep for the Performance. Do you remember that Seinfeld episode where George kept getting burned by a co-worker in a meeting? Then he went home that night to come up with the perfect comeback? We can all commiserate on the feeling of being tongue-tied at that moment.

Break out your journal, write out all the potentially offensive things your family members might say. Then write down a response. Here are some examples...

Uncle John, “What happened to that guy you brought last year?. I really liked him.”

You, "It turns out he wasn’t all that nice after all. I’m glad to have moved on."

Tia Gladys “Why are you still single?”

You, "I’ve learned it’s better to wait for the right person instead of dating just anyone. "

Auntie Mary Grace “Don’t you want a family of your own?”

You, "I have so many hopes and dreams for myself, and I'm grateful to be on the path that I am."

2. Set Your Goals. Most of the time you know what to expect from certain family members. You know who to talk to early before they’ve had too much to drink. Who has the hot gossip but is most likely to share about you. And who to avoid the whole time. Before you head out the door, make a game plan. Think about how you want to feel when you leave the event… Empowered? Kind? Connected? How can you be at this gathering AND still get a good night's sleep? Then every interaction you have, touch base with that goal. Is what you’re talking about and how you’re talking going to get you to that goal at the end of the night?

3. Politics are Bound to Come Up. Maybe you are from a family where everyone agrees politically. If you are, I am insanely jealous. If you are not and politics creates tension in the gathering, this tip is for you. Going back to the idea of making a game plan, how do you want to handle it when someone says something against your beliefs? Or when someone tries to bait you because they know a certain topic is sensitive for you? What’s going to help you maintain your sense of composure and empowerment while also feeling connected and true to your values? Some options include using humor, arming yourself with facts, speaking kindly about what you’re experiencing in that moment (‘it seems like you’re trying to make me upset by the way you’re talking to me.’), and appealing to someone’s good side. Give yourself permission to cut off conversations with someone who is attacking you or getting aggressive. This can be especially difficult for someone who has a history of people-pleasing or walking on eggshells when things get tense. Play it out in your mind to prep for the potentially difficult moments. What will you say and how will you say it? This will give you a boost of confidence if the moment presents itself.

3. Tamper Your Expectations. We all want to feel seen and understood, especially by our family. Unfortunately, given the emotional limitations of some family members, this is not a possibility for many. Knowing what we can realistically expect from someone will save us a ton of heartache, hurt, and frustration down the road. There’s a saying in Al-Anon, ‘don’t go to the hardware store for milk.’ In other words, If you’re looking for a certain thing (a safe space to share your worries), don’t go somewhere that doesn’t have it (your alcoholic, emotionally-stunted mother).

4. Boundary Up. It’s okay to take certain topics off the table for discussion. For example, your recent divorce or unsolicited parenting advice. A few suggestions for setting boundaries...

I know you’re trying to help but I do already feel confident and have support in this area. Thank you though. Have you tried the bean dip?

I prefer to not talk about my divorce right now, which I’m sure you can understand. Have you tried the bean dip?

I feel put on the spot when talking about something so personal with so many people around. Let’s change the topic. Have you tried the bean dip?

I'm not sure what you mean. Have you tried the bean dip?

5. Coping with Conflict. You may be coming into this shindig prepared with coping and communication skills but that doesn’t mean the other parties have expanded their emotional regulation abilities in the past year. Tension and conflict among family members can be especially unsettling, especially for a person with a history of abuse or chaos in the home as a child. If you find yourself feeling triggered and stressed out, try to stay connected to your breath and your body. Breathing in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Noticing how the air feels as it goes in (cool) and out (warm). Rub your palms against each other or on the cushion of your chair to feel the sensation. And of course, you can always excuse yourself to the bathroom to take a minute or ten. Running your hands under warm water can be very soothing.

And remember, if you need to talk through ways to respond to potentially awkward moments before the event, vent some steam afterward, or just share a laugh at how ridiculous your family is, please join us in our Facebook Group!

Resilient Rebound is for educational purposes only. It does not claim to offer a course of psychotherapy nor does it serve as a substitute for it. 

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