How to survive family gatherings

Befriend the elephant in the room

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.
Image courtesy of Alexas_Fotos

Difficult family gatherings – we all will have been to one. Weddings, funerals, birthdays, Sunday lunch – take your pick. Sometimes it’s the elephant in the room, that causes a bad atmosphere. Then again, the elephant can also be our ally and help avoid conflict.

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 gatherings.

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 gatherings; 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.

Here are some general suggestions for coping strategies for difficult family gatherings.

You may want to tailor them to your own circumstances:

a) Be Clear
Ahead of difficult family gatherings 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 gatherings 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 gathering 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.

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

Some practical exercises ahead of, during and after difficult family gatherings:

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.

Take some time out after difficult family gatherings.

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 gatherings.

To receive Karin’s newsletter please sign up here.

Originally published at

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

I can change my expectations and not expect them to fulfill certain needs.

5 Ways To Optimize Mental Wellness During Stressful Family Gatherings with Alicia Racine.

by A.N. Gibson
Recognize that toxic family members or friends still want to exert control over others, to hold the power in the relationship, whether they are aware of it or not — and most of the time they are not consciously aware of the methods they use to force their will on others.

5 Ways To Optimize Mental Wellness During Stressful Family Gatherings, With Thomas Bognanno

by A.N. Gibson

“Why we need to stop working on building self-esteem, and instead work much more on self-compassion” With Dr. Barbara Vacarr

by Akemi Sue Fisher

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.