You can transform our nation ... one family at a time!
Choose the monthly amount
you'd like to give.
You can transform our nation ...
one family at a time!
Choose the monthly amount you'd like to give.

Taking the Stress Out of Family Gatherings

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

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.

Focus on the Family Plugged In logo

Entertainment Reviews Your Family Can Trust

Plugged In shines a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving families the essential tools they need to understand, navigate, and impact the culture in which they live. Let us help your family make wise and informed choices about movies, TV shows, music, video games, and more!
Close up of a young, pensive Asian woman listening to someone talking to her on her phone

Talk to a Counselor

If you need further guidance and encouragement, Focus on the Family has a staff of licensed, professional counselors who offer a one-time complimentary consultation from a Christian perspective. They can also refer you to counselors in your area for ongoing assistance.
Reach a Focus on the Family counselor toll-free at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).

Understand How to Respect and Love Your Son Well

"Why doesn’t my son listen to me?" Have you ever asked yourself that? The truth is, how you view your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. We’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.

Focus on Parenting Podcast

Mom or dad, could you use some encouragement and support? Put your ear buds in for this Christian parenting podcast and get practical, faith-based inspiration through all stages of parenting. Hosted by Dr. Danny Huerta, in every 8 to 15 minute episode, you’ll hear parenting experts share Biblical truths, effective parenting techniques, and useful resources that will help you feel equipped as a mom or dad in today’s culture.
Parenting a strong-willed child resource promotion

Learn How to Speak Your Strong-Willed Child's Language

In this free 6-part video series, Cynthia Tobias, author of many popular parenting books including You Can’t Make Me, explains why your strong-willed child thinks in certain ways and gives you effective tools you can use when communicating with him or her. Start today!

Get Equipped With the Truth So
You Can Bring Light to the Lies

Abortion is not an easy subject to talk about. You want to defend the truth, to expose the realities so easily confused during these times. Yet, it is so easy to tense up, to get nervous, to get so concerned with wanting to say the “right thing” that you end up saying nothing at all. If you feel at a loss when these conversations come up, this video series, “8 Lies About Abortion,” can help equip you with the truth, and the confidence to engage in the discussion.

Next Steps: Marriage Assessment

We want your marriage to be thriving and healthy. Take the free Marriage Assessment from Focus on the Family to learn how to strengthen your bond with your spouse and get the tools to help you need to grow closer together. 

Next Steps: Fruit of the Spirit Devotionals for Couples

The Fruit of the Spirit Devotional is a free series of nine short videos to get you into God’s Word and inspire you to seek the Holy Spirit’s help in loving your spouse.

About the Author

Read More About:

You May Also Like

parenting, protecting kids: happy little boy in a blue tshirt hugging his daddy's let

Are You Protecting Your Kids Enough?

There is a balance in protecting our kids from harm and giving them the freedom to fail, struggle, and the skills to succeed.

in-law problems during the holidays Illustration of a plate on a table. the words "Creamed, Mashed, and Slammed" are written out on the plate.
Extended Family

In-Law Problems During the Holidays

After feeling belittled by my in-laws, I found a way to face my problems and be at peace with my place at their table