Summer is a time for family gatherings. Whether it’s a wedding, a road trip to visit Grandma, or the dreaded family reunion, people often debate whether spending time with family members is worth their precious vacation time and their sanity. With a change in perspective and a little bit of planning, you can begin to see your family as an interesting collection of personalities and a source for meaningful relationships you may have overlooked in the past. As a family systems therapist, I often help my clients think about how to bring their best selves to family gatherings. Here are a few suggestions for how to work on managing your frustrations and anxieties around people in your extended family.

Turn Learning About Family Members into a Game: Scavenger Hunt Anyone? 

Family get-togethers are a wonderful time to collect missing facts about your family and previous generations.  Your mom may not know much about her aunt’s cross country journey during the Gold Rush but maybe her brother whom you never see does. Instead of focusing on everyone’s annoying habits or how no one seems to ask you any questions about your own life,  if you think of this time as a way to gather facts, you may uncover interesting and little-known information about family members that will suddenly make them seem, well, interesting! Plus, the hours will fly by. Turn your quest for information into a scavenger hunt of sorts—have you know the names and ages of your cousins’ children? Do you have everyone’s phone numbers or email addresses? What really happened to your grandfather’s long-lost sister? Staying fact-focused is a great way to avoid the emotional traps of large family gatherings, as there’s bound to be a lot of anxiety in the room. I tell my clients that curiosity is often the best antidote to anxiety.

Look for the Triangles  

When you socialize in a group of people, you’re bound to create perceived enemies and allies. Often at family gatherings, we use other people as buffers or confidantes to express our frustrations with more challenging family members. Maybe you and your sister like to roll your eyes at your dad’s inability to stay out of family drama, or perhaps your spouse asks you not to leave their side for fear that they’ll be stuck with your super boring uncle who never stops talking. When we rely on a third person to manage our relationship with another person, the situation becomes an emotional triangle. Family reunions are a great place to see where triangles are operating in your family. Triangles often look like gossiping, criticizing, or blaming others. How can you rely less on others and build up your own ability to have one-to-one relationships with family members, even the challenging ones? The more responsibility you take for your relationships, the less you’ll have to depend on buffers and gossip buddies.

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Focus on One-to-One Relationships

Because triangles are so common in families, it can become all too easy to operate as a group rather than an individual. Why should you have to talk to your scary aunt when your dad can just do it for you? Family gatherings can be a great time for observing whether you have a solid one-to-one relationship with every person in your family. If there’s going to be a big crowd, consider not talking to the people who already know the most about you or the ones with whom you already feel the most comfortable. Making an effort to get to know the outliers can reduce your overall discomfort at future events and help you feel more connected to your extended family. It also takes the pressure off of having to have a meaningful conversation with everyone at the event. Just pick 2 or 3 people you’d like to get to know better (come’on there’s got to be one or two!) and seek them out. If you’d like to keep the conversation going, get their contact information and make plans to see each other again in the future.

Manage Yourself and Not Everyone Else

It can become all too easy to try and control everyone else’s behavior at a large family gathering. Women and the oldest children are particularly susceptible to making sure everyone is comfortable or having a good time. Maybe you’re preoccupied with protecting your daughter from everyone’s prying questions about whether she’s picked a major in college yet. Or you worry that there’s not enough food even though you weren’t put in charge of the meal prep. Perhaps you keep an eye on your brother to make sure he doesn’t drink too much and start arguing politics with people. Trying to control other people is a quick way to make yourself anxious and frustrated. You are only responsible for yourself, so beware when you are trying to manage the behaviors or emotions of other people and refocus on yourself. It’s not your job to make sure everyone stays calm at a family reunion. Sometimes being a leader simply means being the calmest person in the room. Especially in a family!

Make a Plan  

Perhaps the most important strategy for a family reunion is simply to have a plan. If you don’t have one, you’re likely to sink back into anxiously reacting to everyone’s quirks and miss opportunities for developing relationships. You know your weaknesses, so take a few minutes a week or so before the event and ask yourself, “What is likely to make me the most anxious? How might I end up acting immaturely or in a way I might regret?” Thinking ahead and making a plan can alleviate the stress of the event. Your plan could be as simple as trying to avoid managing your parents or to reach out to a nephew you don’t know well for a 10-minute chat. When creating a plan for a family reunion, it’s important not to shoot for the moon. Pick a few manageable objectives, and save your other ideas for future gatherings.

For people with particularly difficult families, I often recommend that people simply start by observing. Where do they see triangles operating? What family members make them the most anxious? Whom do they avoid and whom do they seek out? By observing yourself and your family like a researcher would, you can learn a lot about where to put your efforts in the future. Observing can also help you stay calm and thoughtful, because you’re using the front part of your brain rather than the part that operates on fear.

The more likely you are to see family gatherings as an opportunity for working on yourself and building more solid relationships, the more likely you are to show up to future events like reunions, weddings, funerals, and graduations and enjoy them. You can’t change your family, but you can change how you operate within your family. When you stay focused on yourself and who you want to be in your family, you might find that spending time with them isn’t quite as overwhelming as it used to be. Keep in mind, being with extended family is temporary—you’ll be back to your regular life soon. So take a few minutes today, and think about your next family gathering. How can you be more present and less anxious among the people you call family?

Last Updated: Sep 8, 2020