7 Ways to Deal with Difficult Family Gatherings

"Summer Sunset at Langholmen" by  Jess Pac  used with  CC license  by 2.0

"Summer Sunset at Langholmen" by Jess Pac used with CC license by 2.0

That time of year is approaching. Memorial Day cookouts, kids home from school, and family vacations. It sounds so fun when it’s being planned (well, perhaps not), but then once you’re all together it can seem like a nightmare. You can’t change the people in your family and even if you could, whenever you get any group of people together that have known each other for so long, there is going to be friction. Here are a few tips to help you deal with those people you find most difficult.


1. Lower Your Expectations

Expectations play a huge role in our constant disappointment, especially in regards to family. We go into family gatherings hoping for a real-life Norman Rockwell or for our family problems to be quirky and silly like a sitcom. We all know that’s not real life but that won’t stop us from having lofty expectations of ourselves and of our family.

Is Uncle Mike always slightly inappropriate or Aunt Joan usually critical? Do you argue with your antagonistic brother-in-law? Well, they will likely just remain that way. Stop expecting them to be the aunt, uncle, or brother-in-law you want them to be and just take them as they are. Other people don’t change just because you want them to.

2. Put Down the Toolbox. You’re Not Here to Fix Anyone

Whether they know it or not, many people go into family gatherings with plans to finally fix how certain family members think, communicate, or interact. This goes hand-in-hand with the expectations section. You cannot fix people, especially not at the family barbeque. Put down the hammer, Bob Vila, and back away slowly.

First of all, people are not projects. They’re people. They’re complex and it’s likely they act the way they act for a very good reason that you know nothing about, despite knowing your family for your whole life. Additionally, some people are just difficult to be difficult. Not amount of fixing will change that. You can only have control over yourself. Which brings us to…

3. Know Thyself

Just like each and every one of your family members, you have triggers, things that set you off, habits, and patterns of behavior that might be contributing to the difficult family dynamic. No matter how difficult another person might be, interactions are between two people and chances are, there are things that you do that perpetuate even the most difficult moments.

Try to be honest with yourself (fair, but honest). Think about that one thing your dad does that always sets you off or topics that start arguments. Once you start to see conversations starting to go towards those topics, bring up a different topic, get a refill on your drink, or take sanctuary in the bathroom. Know your limits and your triggers.

4. Woosah

You don’t have to sit in the lotus position chanting “Om” to meditate. Perhaps the whole idea sounds a little strange to you but give it a try. You can do it anywhere and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. It can put you in a place of calm and increase your patience. Try some of these exercises before, during, and/or after your family gathering and see the difference it can make.

5. Become a Scientist

Often we react to situations based on judgments or evaluations we make about other people, situations, and our own thoughts. It can cause a lot of trouble and often doesn’t allow us to see the situation in an objective manner. When you start to feel yourself becoming upset at a family gathering, step back and become an observer of the situation by using some self-talk. Be curious, not judgmental 

  • Notice reactions your body is having by literally pointing them all out to yourself 
    • “I notice my heart beating hard and my breathing is faster than normal. My palms are starting to sweat and my face feels hot” 
  • Point out the emotions you are feeling in the moment.
    • “I think I’m feeling upset and angry right now”
  • Theorize what might be behind these feelings. Be curious.
    • “Dad is talking about a subject that has made me angry in the past. I start feeling up set when he talks about this.”
  • Take judgment out of it – having negative feelings, as well as positive ones, is all part of experiencing a rich, full range of emotions and part of being human.
    • “It’s not good or bad that I’m feeling this way. It’s just how I’m feeling and that’s okay. I’m human, I’m supposed to have a full range of emotions. It’s healthy.”

6.     Love the Little Things

One of the best ways to get through a gathering with people you find it hard to be with is to shift your focus. When you step into the gathering before you get much of a chance to get frustrated, anxious, or upset, start to name things about everyone of which you’re appreciative. You can find something for just about anyone or do it for the group as a whole.

  • I’m thankful that I have so many interesting people in my life.
  • Aunt Joan is a very observant, attentive woman.
  • I had so many passionate people around me growing up. 

Give it a shot and see what you can come up with! It can change your perspective of the whole event.

7.     Safety First! Have an Emergency Exit

Regardless of what you do, sometimes it can only let you hold out for so long. Maybe you can only talk with certain family members for 5 minutes or you can only be at the whole gathering for an hour. That’s okay. When you’re there, make it a point to be present in the moment and be with your family as much as you can but then when you reach your limit, prepare a way out before you become overwhelmed or things turn south.