Reducing Stress at Family Gatherings

While the idea of happy family gatherings is heartwarming, the reality of these get-togethers is more complex. Family gatherings can be fun or they can be stressful. They can be uplifting or maddening – or they might be a little of everything! It all depends on who is in the family and how you feel about them. Family members are people who are thrown together by birth and marriage; they are not like friends we have carefully chosen. These are people we must deal with whether we like them or not. Quite often, there are difficult people included in the group who may have caused us pain and aggravation. Usually, there is one or more person who has hurt us and disappointed us and there are some others who are just plain annoying.  Fortunately, there are also likely to be some who we truly enjoy being around. All of these “loved ones” come together for family celebrations and holidays to enjoy feelings of closeness and community.

Let’s look at some tips for minimizing stress and increasing the pleasure of these gatherings.

Family Relationships are Important to Kids
Children are nourished by family gatherings. The extended circle of love makes them feel secure in a world which is often fragmented and isolated. The ritual celebration of holidays brings a sense of stability and meaning to the child’s world. If your children are going to experience the family scene, you can help to make it as positive as possible for them by keeping your negative thoughts to yourself. Children do not benefit from hearing how you can’t stand the sight of Uncle Joe or how you will not be talking to Cousin May. If you have any conflicts with any family members, try to keep them under wraps for the duration of the gathering. Kids don’t have to know all of your business. Even if YOU don’t like a certain family member, you can still allow your child to enjoy that person’s company. (If you think that anyone is a threat of any kind to your child’s well-being, either don’t invite the person or don’t allow your child to attend the event).

Prepare Kids in Advance
Let your children know what you expect of them in advance. If there are rules you wish to establish (no yelling, running, cursing, grabbing or whatever), tell them before the gathering. You can also warn them that there will be negative consequences AFTER the gathering if they misbehave. Try very hard not to discipline children during a gathering as the embarrassment they feel can harm them. Of course, you’ll need to be realistic too – children who are seeing their cousins and other relatives can get over-excited and a bit wild. From their point of view, they may be having the time of their lives. Simply remind them quietly to settle down if necessary.

Do Not Disturb the Festive Atmosphere
Refrain from anything that might contribute to tension at the gathering. Don’t talk about “hot” topics. Don’t correct your spouse in public. Don’t criticize anyone or anything. Don’t argue with a relative about anything – it isn’t worth it. Your job is to keep the gathering upbeat and positive. This is a party! Keeping it this way is your gift to your children.

Teenagers are Independent
Often, teens go through a period where they don’t want to attend family gatherings. Usually this is temporary. Once they have found a life partner or  have kids of their own, they’ll be very interested in family gatherings again. Meanwhile, you can ask your teens to please attend for a short while and then allow them to go to do their own activities whether that involves leaving the house to be with their own friends or going to their own rooms to pursue their own activities. If your teen really doesn’t want to come for even 5 minutes, don’t push it; this may change by the next gathering or over the course of the next few years. As long as you report having a great time, the door remains open for your teen or young adult to join you on another occasion. If your adolescents are happy to attend the gathering – that’s great! You might even put them to work! At this age, they can help with serving and clearning or table setting or whatever. Try to listen to their ideas and suggestions and implement them, giving them a voice in how things will be set  up, arranged or conducted. This can help them “own” the scene and enjoy it even more. If you are at another relative’s home, encourage your teens to offer their assistance. This is sure to earn them positive feedback, helping them to feel important in the family scheme of things. But don’t over do it – a few minutes of helping is all that is necessary. Let your teens just relax and talk to people. Welcome them in joining the “grownups” in more adult conversation if they show an interest to be there. If they want to hang with the young people, be careful not to correct them or criticize them in front of others. No warnings not to drink too much and so on – do all of that in private before you get to the party. This is not the time to be “parental.” Just smile and wave!  By treating your teens as if they are no longer little kids, you can help them become “young ladies and gentlemen” within the family context – you are promoting them to the next level. When they experience their enhanced status, they are more likely to want to attend future gatherings.

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