14th December 2018

Family events – a survival guide

Useful strategies

Coping with difficult family gatherings (c) KarinSieger.com
Coping with difficult family gatherings (c) KarinSieger.com

Family events can be fun, sad or difficult. How to prepare for difficult family occasions and avoid conflict?

Family events – formal, informal, family celebrations, Bank Holidays, Festive Seasons, religious celebrations, funerals, Sunday lunch, just dropping by – take your pick. Perhaps it is you, perhaps it is someone else. But someone will bring a bag of stuff, which may make it difficult to relax at family get-togethers.

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There may be:

The elephant in the room: an obvious issue or problem no one wants to discuss.

The three wise monkeys: hearing no evil, seeing no evil, speaking no evil, when we may choose to look the other way and feign ignorance of something.

The ostrich: when we may bury our head in the sand trying to ignore obvious signs of danger or conflict.

You may recognize some of these.

Sometimes, choosing to ignore the obvious is a necessary strategy to help keep the peace during difficult family get-togethers; at other times this may lead to conflict.

Avoiding the obvious and the truth can be ok, especially if it is your choosing.

However, when others pretend that something (or someone), which matters to us, does not exist, then we may experience a whole range of emotional responses, like anger, resentment, anxiety, feeling isolated and more.

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1. Some coping strategies for difficult family events

You may want to tailor them to your own circumstances:

a) Be Clear
Ahead of family events get clarity in your own mind about the sorts of issues that might be problematic for you and others. Indeed, be clear who may be a problem for you, and for whom you may be a problem – and why.

b) Make a Choice

Decide how you want to approach the gathering, which topics you want to talk about, or not, or how much, or how little. Decide how you want to approach certain individuals and how you may respond to the ways in which they may treat you.

c) Get an Ally

If possible, share your plan with another, who can back you up, and understands your reasoning behind your chosen strategies.

d) Prepare an Exit Plan
Sometimes at family events we may need temporary time out, or we may need to cut the visit short altogether. Think ahead of how you might want to get yourself out of potentially tricky and difficult situations.

e) What is the worst that can happen?
Instead of fuelling irrational anxiety, thinking about the worst that may happen, and what we might do about it, can be strangely reassuring – because we are prepared.

f) Get in a helpful frame of mind
If a forthcoming family events may be stressful, then ensure you cut down on other stress. Prioritize commitments, try and keep your physical and emotional batteries charged. Try and relax. Have enough rest, keep hydrated and keep an eye on your diet. Comfort eating, comfort drinking, comfort smoking and more is understandable, but has a limited shelf life and creates more problems than solutions.

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g) Stay reassured
You have made a plan. That is a fact. Try and feel reassured by the choices you make.

2. Some practical exercises ahead of and during difficult family events

The following exercises or rituals can help reassure you. Depending on your preferences, you may feel comfortable with the following suggestions. If not, then have a look around and create your own.

1. Breathing exercises to help you stay calm
Online you will find a wide range of suggestion. Here is one example

2. Visualisation exercise to help you stay focused and grounded
Again you will find a lot of material online. But in a nutshell:

In what kind of place do you feel calm? What kind of scenery makes you feel energized? For example, by a river, on a meadow, in the mountains? Select your space and in your mind go there from time to time, when you rest or walk or wherever you can. Get used to what it is like. When you are in situations of stress and conflict, taking yourself to that place, even very briefly, can help you re-focus on what matters and can help you avoid being sucked into a quarrel you would like to avoid.

3. Carry a token
Put something in your bag or pocket that symbolizes your strategy for managing difficult family gatherings. It may be a word or sentence written on a piece of paper; an item, a piece of clothing or jewellery that can help remind yourself, that you are ok.

3. Take some time out after difficult family events

Such gatherings can be mentally exhausting and emotionally draining. Indeed, you may take away with you a whole range of feelings like frustration, anger, hopelessness, loneliness, which you need to process and let go off. Then we need time to relax, rest and think things over. Some of the strategies suggested here may help you to do that.

And please remember, you are not alone and there is no shame in feeling ambivalent about difficult family events.

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Watch my video here for more help with family dynamics

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Karin Sieger is a UK-based psychotherapist and writer. All rights reserved © Copyright Karin Sieger. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Article do not substitute medical advice.

2 Comments

  1. Karin,
    Thanks for sharing these helpful suggestions for handling family strife. We all have it and the situations seem to intensify with high holiday expectations.
    Best to your practice,
    Connie

    • Hi Connie, thanks and yes, that’s my experience, too. Esp when family members have not seen each other for a while, and it’s all crowded… Wishing you well, too. Very best. Karin

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