You do not have to dread family gatherings

Family holiday gatherings can be stressful but there are ways to make the season brighter.

Do family gatherings cause you a lot of anxiety? Not everybody looks forward to annual holiday gatherings. We often overwhelm ourselves trying to find the perfect gifts and attend every neighborhood open house, cookie exchange and holiday program; and then we also have the family gathering to attend. 

These gatherings bring with them a long history we keep filed inside our heads. We've learned to avoid Aunt Ann’s baked beans and Uncle Joe’s hard cider and we know what happens if we don’t participate in the ugly sweater contest or gift exchange. We also know to be on the look-out for cousin Brian’s teasing of the little kids and sister-in-law Sue’s love of gossip.  

Family relationships are complicated at best. We attend a family gathering with a lifetime of memories, and not all those memories are filled with comfort and joy. A good approach is to stop and ask yourself why you are attending the event? If you can’t come up with a solid reason, don’t go.

If you do attend; decide to have a good time. Take a long hard look at yourself. What are your expectations for this time with family? Can you decide to not let your sister push your buttons and skip the annual political argument?

Many times our expectations are out of whack with reality. Avoid getting involved in controversial conversations by giving yourself space, literally. This may mean walking into a different room or changing seats to not sit next to a certain person. You can even try sitting with the kids, it’s always fun at their table. 

Watch the amount of alcohol you’re drinking if it tends to loosen your mouth. Pay attention to how your body feels, if you’re feeling tense, organize a walk around the block. Change your reactions and responses and you’ll enjoy yourself much more. 

We humans like things to stay the same. We find comfort in always meeting at Michelle’s house. We resist menu changes because “We’ve always had ham and cheesy potatoes for dinner.” Along with menus and households, people don’t change. If Uncle Dave is obnoxious when you see him in July, he’ll likely be obnoxious in December. Accept the fact that you will need to be the one to make changes. 

There will always be a certain amount of family baggage that we carry with us to holiday gatherings but with a few minor attitude changes, you can enjoy this family time. Keep your sense of humor, choose to ignore baiting remarks and remember why you made the decision to attend. 

Michigan State University Extension has more resources on coping with stressful situations that can be accessed on their website.  

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