Surviving Holiday Closeness With Family

Holidays usually mean a higher concentration of family time. This can either be wonderful, or a source for lots of stress. It’s incredibly rare to get through a large family gathering without any frustration, but here are a few tips on how to diffuse stressful situations, or avoid them all together.

Find an Ally and Stick Together

The last time my family got together, my sisters and I agreed on a few things in the car before heading inside: topics to avoid, lines not to cross and always having each others’ backs. When the “friendly family jibbing” turned on my oldest sister, the other two of us swept in and reminded everyone at the table that she just got a promotion, finished a half-marathon and moved into a new apartment. Soon the mocking turned into interested questions and impressed nods.

Choose an ally before arriving at the holiday event — maybe it’s your sibling, maybe it’s your significant other, maybe it’s your favorite cousin. Whoever it is, make sure you’re both watching out for each other throughout the whole event. Come up with a code word if you need to. Help each other out and the night will go more smoothly from start to finish.

Be a Gracious Guest

Starting things off with a polite “thanks for having me,” bringing a small gift or side dish for dinner and offering to help set or clear the table — all go a long way with family. It brings your hosts’ defenses down a little and shows that you appreciate them having you in their home. This also goes a long way when trying to make a good first impression on a significant others’ extended family.

Hang out At the Kids’ Table

You know who isn’t going to care if you’re in a relationship or not? Your three-year-old cousin. You know who isn’t going to judge your current salary? The baby. You know who’s more than happy to gush over the latest Hunger Games movie with you? Your nine-year-old niece. When adult chatter becomes too much, I always escape to the kids’ table. Conversation stays light, imaginations run high and there are usually crayons.

Bring the Conversation Back to Happy, Shared Memories

At our last gathering, there was a lull in conversation — so I asked my aunt if she had been to the science museum, where she took my sisters and I when WE were little, with her kids. Her face lit up and she started reminiscing on our many fun trips there. Other family members chimed in on fun events they’d taken the kids to recently, or family trips my grandpa took them on when THEY were young. Once again the conversation stayed light and friendly, and I got to hear some stories I had never heard about my family.


Sometimes you’re going to be stuck in an awkward defense of outdated beliefs. It’s likely you’re not going to change Uncle Fred’s opinion by arguing with him, so wait until he takes a breath and excuse yourself without stirring the pot.

Alternately, maybe the topic has turned to a subject about which you know very little. Listening instead of interrupting may lead to learning something new, or finding out something new about a family member you thought you knew front to back. Paying attention is a passive way of engaging in a conversation, and it shows the people around you that you care about them. It also means others might be more likely to listen when you do decide to speak up.

Decompress With Friends

The first Christmas after my parents divorced, I called my best friend and asked about her holiday plans. She invited me over post-family time for drinks and board games with a bunch of other twenty-somethings. It was the perfect way to decompress after the slightly stressful day — and it helped me get through some of the harder parts of family time because I knew I had friends and games waiting for me at the end of the day.

Family Movie Time

Not a lot of talking, arguing, or postulating goes on in a crowded and dark movie theater. If you can’t get everyone to agree on one film, pick two or three and go in smaller groups.

 Bring a Book

Okay, nothing else is going on. There are no kids to perform their latest number from dance class, or maybe your family is just the quieter set. Bringing a book can serve a few purposes:

1. You have something to occupy you if you’re waiting for someone else to drive you home.
2. The book can serve as a talking point. (Choose something non-controversial for best effect — classic literature is almost always a good bet.)
3. The book can keep you from checking your phone. I don’t know about you, but anything I can do to avoid the “kids these days and their screens” talk, is good in my…book. 

Moderate Your Alcohol Intake

This is good advice in general, but especially when you want to control your emotions, keep your response measured, etc. Things can get messy with too much drinking. Tears flow more easily, voices can get raised, and then it’s not safe to make a quick escape if you need to.

Have an Escape Route

Speaking of which, an escape route is essential. Having a “bed time”, another friend expecting your arrival, or an errand you need to run will all help make the escape route less likely to get questioned.

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