My first Christmas with my husband’s family involved an all-out beat-down…and I was the target.
We had just finished opening presents, and before I knew what was happening, one of his 3 sisters snuck out of the room and reappeared with an armful of empty wrapping paper tubes that she must have been saving for this moment.
In a matter of seconds, the room was a ferocious flurry of cardboard “swords” as brothers, sisters, and cousins turned their pent up energy into a hilarious family smackdown of epic proportions.
I was speechless.
I’m not one to go down without a fight, so I grabbed a tube and jumped in swinging like my life depended on it.
Suddenly, it did.
Without a word, all swords turned towards me and I found myself with my hands held high in desperate surrender as a dozen cardboard tubes descended on me. What kind of family was I marrying into?!
As the last brown paper sword halted, laughter erupted around the room. My husband’s middle sister smiled at me and proudly declared, “Welcome to the family.”
While most families won’t beat you over the head with a cardboard tube (now a favorite tradition for us), even the most loving and functional families can experience stressful dynamics during the holiday season–everything from strained relationships and miscommunication to boundary issues, lifestyle differences, and unexpressed expectations.
And if your extended family happens to fall on the dysfunctional end of the spectrum? Well, then multiply all that stress and drama times ten!
Here’s the thing: you may not be able to control your extended family, but there are some simple things you can do to create a more relaxed and harmonious experience for everyone.
SHAPE YOUR ENVIRONMENT FOR SUCCESS
Have you ever walked into someone’s home and instantly felt a sense of peace? Or maybe you’ve stepped into a house that made you want to turn and run the other way.
People respond to their environments.
One of the best ways to promote harmony at your next family gathering is to design your environment to reflect what you want to achieve.
Looking for peace? Play calming music in the background. Want to promote connection? Arrange seating to encourage conversation and not isolation. Afraid of political debates? Have some fun conversation starter cards ready.
Need to up the happiness level? Serve food immediately.
At my daughter’s first birthday party, we had an elaborate display of food, but people were standing around waiting for the “official” release to start eating. The room was silent. Nobody was talking, mingling or even looking at each other.
Then, we announced they could eat. In a matter of minutes, the room was buzzing with life. Conversations were popping up everywhere, new friendships were being formed, and laughter bounced off the tall ceilings as a house turned into a home with the simple breaking of bread.
For thousands of years, food has had an uncanny ability to tear down walls and bring people together. Use it as the powerful weapon it is and love your family through food. There’s nothing like the tantalizing scent of a homemade apple pie or mulled cider simmering on the stove to evoke a sense of joy and togetherness.
FACE YOUR FEARS AHEAD OF TIME
One night, my two year old was watching a movie with her sister about a little girl who makes friends with a sasquatch family. When the little sasquatch first came out of the woods, my daughter flipped out. Later that night, she was so afraid that the only way she would fall asleep was on my chest with literally every inch of her body touching mine.
The next morning, I knew I had two choices: to avoid facing that little sasquatch again or to face it head on. I chose the latter. My daughter and I talked about what she was afraid of and what she can do to overcome her fear.
Then, together, we watched the sasquatch show and she realized that it wasn’t nearly as scary as she thought. From that moment on, she referred to it as the “cute monster,” embracing her newfound courage.
When it comes to family gatherings, it’s easy to let fear or anxiety get the best of us. But instead of letting fear steal your joy this holiday season, be proactive and make a plan. Think through the “worst case scenario” of what could happen and brainstorm ahead of time how you will respond.
Maybe you haven’t spoken to your brother since last Christmas and the thought of facing him is stressing you out. Imagine the worst that could happen. Will he yell at you? Blame you? Ignore you? He only has as much power over you and your emotions as you choose to give him. Think through how you could respond confidently and graciously in each of those scenarios.
Try thinking outside the box. What if you broke the ice before the family gathering? A week before you’re going to see him, send a text and say something like, “Hey, I know we haven’t talked in awhile, but I just want you to know that I’m glad you’re coming to Thanksgiving dinner. It will be great to see you.”
Chances are things won’t be as bad as you imagined, but even if they are, you’ll be prepared to handle it like a boss.
DON’T ENGAGE IN HOT TOPICS
Never in the history of family holiday gatherings has a heated political debate changed somebody’s mind on a topic. No matter how brilliantly convincing your evidence may be, these types of conversations tend to bring out the worst in everyone.
When your Uncle Larry asks your opinion on politics, try something like, “I’m not really interested in talking about that right now.” Or “That’s definitely an interesting topic, but I think a different one might be more fun right now.”
Then turn the conversation to things that will encourage relational connection like family stories, favorite memories, or things that will make people laugh.
If all else fails, get up and move to a different room.
ESTABLISH HEALTHY BOUNDARIES
Sometimes, no matter what you do or say, certain family members resort to unhealthy dynamics like guilt, shame, mocking, sarcasm and even outright abuse.
It’s not about you; It’s about them. They’re trying to assert control because, somewhere in their life, they are feeling powerless.
Know your own limits and practice self-care. It’s not your job to make others happy. The only person you can control is you.
So when your mother-in-law corrects your parenting style in front of everyone, be gracious but firm. A simple, non-committal response is usually best. “Thanks, we’ll keep that in mind.” OR “Yeah, that’s one way to do it. We’re trying some different techniques right now. Thanks!” Check out these 7 Tips to Win Over Your Mother-in-Law for more strategies.
If you find something is a recurring issue, like guilt trips from mom or hurtful jabs from your sister, set up a time to meet with them outside of the holidays to talk about your relationship and how these dynamics make you feel.
FIND A FRIEND
You don’t have to get along with everyone to have a good time. Put your energy into connecting with family members who build you up, and set healthy boundaries with the rest. Give yourself permission to avoid deep conversations or private interactions with toxic family members.
If you’re married, make sure you and your spouse are on the same page. Before my husband and I attend holiday gatherings (on either side), we take a few minutes to talk through some potential scenarios and how we will approach them together, as a team. If it’s his side of the family, he takes the lead when necessary. If it’s my side, I do. Even if we disagree on a topic, we support each other.
If there isn’t anyone, find a friend who won’t be there and ask them to be on call for you. Text or call them when you need emotional support.
GET UP & DO SOMETHING ACTIVE
If you’ve found that sitting around for hours tends to become a hotbed for toxic family dynamics, get up and get moving!
Not only will it take the pressure off of conversation as the only form of entertainment, but getting your blood moving is proven to release endorphins, which makes you feel happier and more relaxed.
My friend’s entire family starts Thanksgiving Day by running a local 5k called a Turkey Trot together.
If a 5k is too ambitious, invite your family members to play a game, help in the kitchen or go for a walk. It could be the difference between a stressful day or a fun, relaxed one.
THE SIMPLE SECRET: CHOOSE GRATITUDE
My friend, Michelle, lost her mom to MS a few years ago, after watching her progressively lose her ability to run, then walk, then do even basic tasks. Before Michelle’s mom passed away, while confined to a wheelchair, she told Michelle to embrace the simple joy of movement…walking down the sidewalk, jogging into the store, bending over to pick up your child’s toys off the floor…because it’s a gift that so many take for granted.
So every day, Michelle takes time to get outside and ride a bike, go for a run, or take a quick jaunt to the playground with her two little boys. With every step, she is practicing gratitude. She is choosing a mindset of thankfulness, not because her life has been easy, but in spite of the hardships she has faced. As an elementary school teacher, Michelle now teaches hundreds of kids to do the same.
The truth is, no matter how difficult or stressful family dynamics may be, your family matters to you. With every interaction, every get-together, every conversation, you have a choice. You can focus on the weaknesses, the past hurts, and the unmet expectations, or you can embrace the beauty of family in all its messy chaos.
Author Richard Bach said, “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.”
Whether you’re connected by blood or not, focus on connecting with your loved ones. Listen to truly understand them. Ask meaningful questions about their life. Thank them. Make eye contact and smile. Play with their kids. Point out something they did well. Offer to help. Laugh together.
With each small act of kindness, you are choosing gratitude.
And it’s contagious! The more you focus on thankfulness and connection, the more those around you will be inspired to do the same. But even if they don’t, you can still let go of guilt, bitterness and fear, and choose gratitude.
In the midst of this busy holiday season, remind yourself of everything you have to be thankful for, even when you get whacked in the head with a wrapping paper tube.