Taking the Stress Out of Family Gatherings

Do you experience stress, anxiety, even dread about some family get-togethers? You’re not alone.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

When facing a stressful family gathering this holiday season, tuck this promise in your heart: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:13 (NIV)

Jennifer laid a plate of homemade cookies in the center of a sheet of holiday gift-wrap. She looked at her friend Betty, who was busy wrapping loaves of gingerbread and fruitcake. “My stomach is churning,” said Jennifer. “I know I should be grateful that Mom and Aunt Helen are coming for Christmas but I’m more anxious than thankful.” She pointed to a family portrait on the dining room wall. “Tom and Mom have never liked one another and Aunt Helen claims she can’t stand to be in the same room with Tom’s dad, Bill.” Jennifer sat down and propped her elbows on the kitchen table. She looked at Betty, hoping for a sympathetic response.

Betty let out a long breath. “I know what you’re talking about. I have a similar situation with my sister. Nancy lives alone and likes to do things her way. She can’t seem to go with the flow when we’re all together. I feel obligated to include her for Christmas dinner but I’m not happy about it.”

Harnessing Your Emotions

If this scenario sounds familiar, you may be feeling similar emotions — fear, anxiety, even dread — about getting together with some of your family members. I experience the same with one branch of our family tree. We have repeatedly invested our time, money, labor and love into the life of this family and have been frustrated by the lack of response of any kind.

Finally, after 20 years of the same behavior, my husband and I decided to set boundaries for ourselves. We now limit our visits to short periods, send one family gift at Christmas, greeting cards for birthdays, and we limit the number of get-togethers in our home. We’ve accepted the relationship as it is and have stopped working so hard to change it. That decision alone has lessened the stress. It also has helped us keep them in our lives and remain a part of theirs — without taking their behavior or comments personally.

June O’Connor, professor of religious studies at the University of California in Riverside, in an article titled “Ready For Reconciliation?” for Catholic Digest (December, 2007, page 110) reminds readers that “Although we cannot force change to happen, we can continue to hope, and we can pray that the other’s heart, too, might be softened…”

This statement has challenged me to go a step further when my husband and I are together with these family members who, for us, are difficult to be with. The author has helped me raise my “compassion quotient,” remembering that I don’t have all the facts about other people. I don’t know their challenges or fears, their concerns and worries, their likes and dislikes. And I must also accept the possibility that these people simply may not want to be with me! When that appears to be true, then I am being disrespectful if I keep pushing for time together.

Asking God for Discernment

On the other hand, such individuals may feel insecure. If I sense that, I can pray for discernment, asking God what small gesture I can make to help them feel welcome and comfortable. For example, at a family birthday party one year I befriended a woman whom many overlooked due to a severe hearing impairment. I sat with her, talked as best I could and we shared the meal together. Later that week I received a handwritten note thanking me for taking time to be with her when no one else had. I saw how one small loving act could mean so much to another person — and to me, as well.

With these examples in mind, how can you make family get-togethers less stressful?

Here are some ideas to take the stress out of your next family gathering:

  • Give the other person the benefit of the doubt and express love and courtesy regardless of how you are treated. The old cliché Kill ’em with kindness holds true. Smile, nod, acknowledge what’s said, and show interest.
  • Choose joy despite the circumstances. Even though it feels stressful, the event will be over in a few hours, or days, and you can then resume your life. Don’t allow anyone to steal your good will and well-being. Trust the Lord to cover your time together. If difficult people are in your home for an extended period, give yourself some time off. Grocery shop alone, get up early and take a walk, excuse yourself for an afternoon nap. If you work outside your home, you have those hours away from the stress.
  • Ask questions. People love to talk about themselves. Find a point of interest and explore it with one or two individuals. This is a good way to learn more about other people and to distract them from disrupting the get-together with hurtful or difficult behavior.
  • Provide opportunities for your guests to participate according to their skill and interest. Setting the table, leading a game, reading a poem or prayer over the meal and so on can make your guests feel helpful. People like to be useful. When they are involved they are less likely to grab the spotlight. One woman learned that her mother-in-law, who is most comfortable in the kitchen, creates less havoc when she has a job to do. For years now, the older woman has been in charge of whipping the potatoes, tossing a fruit salad, and setting out the cakes and cookies at family celebrations. The grandchildren tell her, “We can’t wait to eat your whipped potatoes. They’re the best.” The stressful situations, when Grandma’s around, has nearly disappeared now that she feels useful.

You also might want to consider limiting the amount of time you’re together and stick to it. Set a time frame, whether the gathering is at your house or you’re the guest in someone else’s home. When you reach that point, excuse yourself gracefully. You have the right to come and go as you please. Others have the same right.

It’s always a good idea to keep a sense of humor. Laughter is a great antidote to stress. If someone criticizes or bullies you about something you say or do, take a breath, ask God for grace and respond in a playful way. “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind for next time.” “I wish I had your leadership skills.” “I look forward to our get-together at your house. You sound as if you have some great ideas.” Such statements acknowledge the other person, while retaining your sense of self.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5, NIV). Remind yourself that God created every one of us no matter how difficult we may seem to one another — and He loves us unconditionally. If God can put up with you and me, surely we can put up with the people who annoy and frustrate us. And perhaps one day we will even grow to love them as we hope they will one day love us.

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