How to prepare for uncomfortable family gatherings

Meredith Comas, Opinions Editor

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While most people wish for a holiday family gathering straight out of Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom from Want,” the truth is some of us will sit down to a holiday dinner in which Aunty won’t talk to Dad, Dad is fighting with Grandpa, Mom is fighting with Grandma in the kitchen and you are desperately trying to keep it together. Not every family is perfect, in fact most aren’t, some families fill their glasses with sparkling liquids at the holidays, others fill their glasses to the brim with tension.

While some family gatherings may go up in uncomfortable flames of fighting, not every gathering has to. Here a few tips to help empty the tension glass a bit and cool those fighting flames down at your next family gathering.  


Admit you have a family issue. According to Gabrielle Moss from, the first step is admitting and accepting that your family has an underlying problem that interferes with their ability to have comfortable gatherings. This will help you properly deal with and assess uncomfortable family situations.


Have a buffer buddy. Moss also suggests bringing a friend to an uncomfortable gathering with you or having a person on-call to just vent to over the phone. No one likes to go through things alone, and having a friend can not only help you manage the stress, but sometimes families put on their best behavior in front of an outsider.

“If you’re like a lot of people from toxic families, your friends have developed into your ‘real’ family,” Moss said. “This is a good way to keep reminding yourself of this, while the people who share your genetic material may be falling to pieces around you.”


Ask yourself if it is even worth it to go. This is a question many may be asking and it’s easy to just say no and be on your way, however many people go to family functions anyways because of a feeling of obligation. According to’s psychotherapist Barry Michels, if the nature of family gatherings is toxic, threatening, even abusive, it’s best to just say no. Don’t damage your physical and psychological health for yet another uncomfortable family gathering.

“Absent those conditions, however, I usually recommend people go to family gatherings — not because it’s going to be fun, but because it’s an amazing opportunity to grow emotionally,” Michels said.


Be Realistic It’s okay to expect great things at the holidays, but don’t set your expectations so high that you might be disappointed. Set your expectations for gatherings in line with reality. Expect the fighting and uncomfortable tension and plan for it. Maybe that means be prepared with some buffer conversation topics or little distractions from potentially flammable situations.

Being realistic enables you to work on yourself by holding yourself to a standard of emotional maturity you may have never before achieved in their midst,” Michels said. “The good news is nobody can force you [into the situation]; it’s always in your power to stay out of it, and the rewards for staying out are great.”


Find your boundaries. The one thing anyone should do is set boundaries and find comfort zones. Maybe it’s that you only stay for so long at family gatherings or you limit the amount of time you talk with certain family members who might trigger you. If you can’t leave, Michels advice is to excuse yourself from the situation.

“Go to the bathroom or go out to your car. Do this immediately, as soon as you feel yourself sinking, because the forces pulling you into the [situation] are powerful and they gain momentum quickly,” Michels said. “If you come out of the bathroom or back from your walk and still feel like you’re losing it, then say goodbye. It’s okay.”

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