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Handling Family Holiday Get Togethers: A special blog

Family holiday get togethers can be hard, even in the best of times: people return home with the best of intentions, only to find that things don't go as well as planned. People unconsciously fall back into old roles in their family, and long-festering issues pop up unannounced. Someone says just the wrong thing, and feelings erupt. Instead of our family gathering feeling like we hope it would--a safe, warm, nurturing place--it can feel like we stepped onto a battle ground.

The holidays are also times when people feels stressed. Memories (happy and sad) intrude. Grief intensifies. Disappointment and loneliness abounds. It is a difficult time personally for many of us.

With the recent election, the holidays this year may be worse, especially family gatherings. That's because it is not business (or politics) as usual. Rather, people on all sides of the political spectrum are afraid. For those on the Right, they've been told that we live in unsafe (even Apocalyptic) times, times during which it feels as if their basic and most cherished beliefs are under seige and the enemy is at the door. And for those on the Left or people from marginalized groups (people of color, non-European ethnicities, non-Christian beliefs, or LBGTQ people), many are terrified that we are entering a time of real political, legal, and physical threat to themselves, their loved ones, and large groups in our society. People are scared on both sides of the political aisle.

Whe you combine that with the problems families can normally face at holiday gatherings, it can make for an especially toxic situation. But there are things you can do as a family and as an individual to make it better. Much better.

If your family works well together normally, reach out to everyone ahead of time and suggest that you make you holiday gatherings a Politics-Free Zone. No mention of the election. No discussions of groups of people someone findings unacceptable. Instead, talk about things that are family-oriented. Stick with how Elaine and the kids spent their vacation, or what Micah's new job is like. Share memories from the past that are warm and/or funny. Ask the elders to share stories: the younger members especially love this. Find things to laugh about together. Humor is healing. And focus on being grateful for the good things in your life and in your family!

If your family tends to be more contenious, or you personally don't have a strong enough voice in the family (maybe you are younger and people still think of you as a kid, or perhaps you are an in-law who hasn't made it into the inner group yet), reach out to another family member with whom you can partner and talk about how you can keep the gathering safe for everyone. If there is someone you think would be open to that conversation who has different political views than you, so much the better! Then both sides of the aisle are collaborating! Talk about the ways each of you can help keep the gathering warm, safe, and happy:

  • Discuss whether each of you can recruit other family members to keep the peace and make it a real collaborative effort
  • Work out ways to distract if conversation goes off the rails: bring up a funny or happy family story, or skillfully introduce another topic (sports, movies, etc) 
  • Create a shift in the structure of the gathering (suggest a walk, bring in dessert, have little Olivia do her dance routine)
  • If there is a vulnerable family member, make sure that person has support. This could be a person struggling with depression, who has experienced trauma or loss, who is from a different ethnic group . . .  anyone who may need a little more empathy and compassion

It's also important to prepare yourself on an individual level. Decide to bring your best, most mature self to the table. And take time ahead to think of what you can do to promote family unity while taking care of yourself:

  • Plan distracting techniques for others and for yourself
  • Recognize when you need to retreat, to give yourself a break. Take a few minutes to breathe. Slip out for a quick walk. Ask your favorite family member for a hug . . . or a funny story. Have a friend you can briefly call or text (this can be a life saver if you have a family that struggles with closeness).
  • Leverage empathy and curiosity. Remind yourself that the person who may be the most unpleasant may also be the one who is the must hurt or afraid. Engage him or her by leaning in (if you can without getting upset) and engaging in a conversation where you do most of the listening and ALL of the empathy. Not only may it shift what is going on for the other person, you may find it soothing and freeing: when we engage with empathy, it calms OUR brain and we no longer feel upset.
  • Diffuse with humor. Not sarcasm (which will hurt people and make things worse), but warm humor. Tell funny stories. Find a way to laugh.

Most importantly, GO LIGHT ON THE ALCOHOL. Perfectly reasonable and pleasant people can and do say terrible things when they've been drinking. Alcohol sidelines the part of the brain that allows us to filter what we will say or do. So avoid drinking and limit what you serve your guests!

May your holidays be full of love and good cheer!


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