Coping with Extended Family During the Holidays

Posted on December 11th, 2012 by Maggie Castrey

Are you dreading your next extended-family gathering? Was the last one a traumatic event with bickering, tension, sniping, drama, discomfort, disappointment, maybe even tears of frustration? If this sounds like your family gatherings, then it’s time to implement an Extended Family Makeover.

Extended Families Face Extra Challenges

All families struggle from time to time, but extended families face some extra challenges.
Coping with Extended Family During the Holidays

  1. The family tree gets convoluted when people divorce and remarry.
  2. It’s hard to be polite when you’re angry due to previous experiences
  3. Fireworks can erupt when different traditions collide.
  4. Generations have different ideas of appropriate child supervision.
  5. Unmet expectations create disappointment.

The deck may be stacked against you, but some simple communication techniques and self care tools will enable you to, maybe not makeover the family, but at least transform your reactions to them. Which after all is the only thing you can control, right?

Prevent Holiday Family Disputes & Problems From Arising

Problems often arise when there’s been a change that people don’t know how to deal with. But honestly, what is life but change? Marriage, divorce, major illness, death, loss of a home…none are easy, but this is your family, so it’s worth it. At least try to find ways to get along because if it gets too awful, people will stop coming.

  • Wouldn’t it be better to find a different way?
  • To make it simpler and more pleasant?
  • To create a gathering where everyone feels heard, respected, valued and appreciated?

The key to avoiding Family Holiday Problems is to remain fluid and flexible.

Are you still mad about something in the past?

  • Do some internal work before you go so you can drop the baggage at the door.
  • Walk a mile in their shoes
  • Figure out what part is yours
  • Forgive and forget

You know the drill. If you really just can’t be civil, make your excuses and stay away.

Respect Family Traditions

Understand that each family has its own traditions. If theirs don’t make sense to you, ask them to tell how the traditions got started and what they represent. Giving each person a chance to tell a favorite story will help everyone feel heard and respected
When you’re in someone else’s home, respect and accommodate as best you can. Say you’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years and the host’s tradition is a juicy standing rib roast. Don’t go on about why you won’t eat it. No one cares. Either quietly eat something else or bring something to share. “Would anyone like some of this salmon I brought?” And don’t hold yourself aloof; look around and pitch in; ask what you can do to help.
Since the host gets to call the shots, taking turns hosting can help ease tensions, plus it creates on and off years for the host’s burdens. Excited children usually create chaos but the good thing is they provide lots of distraction. While you watch the kids open presents it’s easy be friendly or at least polite.
Be aware that one wedding ceremony does not a united family make. Each nuclear subgroup of in-laws will retain a primary loyalty to its own members so be respectful and polite, no matter what is said. Above all, avoid drawing lines in the sand, which is a great way to start a family feud. “Hmmm, let’s talk more about it,” can be a great response to defuse a potential conflict.

Plan for Holiday Happiness

Prepare for your time together by creating a plan before you go in and you’ll have a saner and more comfortable time. Even if you’ve had a bitter divorce, try to calmly communicate ahead of time with your ex about your expectations for the event. Divorce confuses everyone and people don’t know what to do. Everyone will be watching out of the corners of their eyes to see how you handle it, so set boundaries around things you know will trigger a reaction.
If part of the family just can’t get along, set a time schedule for comings and goings. Think about challenges of the past and do some problem solving. Do the brothers always start fighting just before dessert? Could you serve dessert right away before anyone leaves the table? Or give each brother a pre-dessert task to distract them? You’re adults so you can create some ground rules. No guns and knives, please, and minimize alcohol.
While you’re mapping out Plan A, also develop Plan B. You may not need it but having it will help you feel calm and in control. Remember, you can always leave a place that makes you uncomfortable. You don’t have to explain or even necessarily say goodbye. If you have reason to think you’ll feel threatened, keep your car keys in your pocket as a reminder you can leave any time.
Listen to your instincts. If you think it’s going to be a problem it probably will be. If you feel like you’ll be able to cope and handle it, you probably will.
If you can’t communicate expectations, or be civil, or remain calm, please, don’t go. Seriously, if you know there will be huge conflict or upheaval, draw on your native smarts and reasoning ability to keep you from stepping into a snake pit where you know you’re going to get bit. Don’t be a victim or a martyr. Don’t pour salt in your wounds and expect anyone to admire your ability to tolerate pain. If just thinking about going ties your stomach in knots, what if you say, “I love you and wish you happy holidays and I’m going to do something else this year.”
I encourage you to create your own holiday, one that makes you feel good. It’s what you want and deserve. For example, if the potluck has become an ordeal and the host feels burdened by others who won’t help clean up, why not rent a space this year, have the food and cleanup catered, and split the costs. Or if you’re hungry for more family involvement, talk openly about how everyone will participate.

Your Big Holiday Reward

Still dreading it? Give the tips in this article a try and you’ll be amazed. Friendly communication will take you far. Your family may not be perfect, but it’s what you’ve got to work with.
So picture this: an extended family gathering where everyone feels welcome and relaxed, where the atmosphere remains calm and friendly, and everyone goes home willing to come back again. You can have it. You deserve it. Happy holidays!
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Nancy D. O’Reilly, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist, researcher, and founder of the online resource WomenSpeak.com, named one of the 100 Best Empowerment Blogs for Women. She has devoted her career to educating, motivating and empowering women. Dr. O’Reilly has a large extended family that has experienced the usual mix of life’s changes. 

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