The Holiday Gathering Gauntlet

Holiday gatherings can turn a happy time of year into a minefield of stress. Even if you are in good spirits, family gatherings can bring you to the verge of a breakdown. Most of us love our families, but getting together for a celebratory feast can cause dread and anxiety. That one person can sometimes be overbearing. Too many drinks and Uncle Al can go off his rocker. It can be exhausting when cousin Jane is trying to tell you about her amazing diet. Cooking “the perfect meal” might bring your host to the bottom of a chardonnay bottle by 4pm. Trying to put a good spin on a bad year when talking to Grandma is not easy.  Talking politics with your step-brother can lead to a blow up. Someone’s sick kid touching all the hors devours. So many things that can go wrong.   

Find an Ally 

You can prepare for chaos by having a plan. Having an ally can make holiday gatherings much easier. If you are attending with a spouse or significant other, then they are your natural partner. If you are flying solo, find someone friendly at the outset who will be sympathetic to your concerns. Let them know that you could use an ally to cope with potential family distress.  Agree to be partners in helping each other deal with difficult situations as they arise. This might mean being bailed out of a difficult conversation with Aunt Maude. You notice a look of horror, so you tap them on the shoulder “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but could you come help me with something for a minute?” Or perhaps they help you by intervening to change the subject – or distract with a joke.  Keep an eye out for each other and signal when you feel you need help. Knowing you are not alone and have someone to turn to reduces the stress.


Code Word is Key

Once you have an ally, then come up with a code word or “safe” word ahead of time. This word will signal to your partner that “I am about to lose my mind, help!”, or “please talk to this person so I don’t have to”, or “I need an excuse to leave the room”.  This word or phrase can be silly, but don’t make it too obvious. Or it can be a look, or a gesture, or a scratch on the nose. A tap on the shoulder can work. Once you hear the word, then you can jump into action. A request to help find something you lost. Asking for assistance needed in another room so you can exit. Interjecting humor, even if it is completely off topic.  A question that changes the subject. All of these can be lifesavers. If you have a code word or secret singal, then you know when the other person needs help.


Couple’s Strategies

If you are a couple, agree in advance on a reasonable amount of time to stay at the gathering. Plan to drop a hint to the host that “we can’t stay too long today” or “we’ve got a busy day tomorrow”. Or, plan an “out” if things drag on too long. If you have kids, negotiate how you will share child monitoring. Split things up if you can. However, if things are rough, spending your time playing with the kids is a good way to avoid annoying adults. Kids are often the most fun people at the party anyway! If you are hosting, agree ahead of time on what cooking and cleaning each person will do. If one of you detests a particular relative, plan ahead to run interference if needed. Finally, make a pact about how much alcohol will be consumed and who is driving home later. 


Distract, Divert, Help Out

You and your ally can also plan diversions or distractions ahead of time.  If things get tense, suggest a game to play. If Grandpa gets cranky, organize a friendly sporting event outside. If conversations turn ugly, volunteer for clean-up duty together.  Go check on a mechanical problem you noticed about your car on the drive over. Find a funny movie or know the football game schedule ahead of time.  Make a “spontaneous” run to the liquor store to get that something special you had on vacation last year, or go to the grocery store together to get whatever was forgotten. Walk the dog to get some fresh air.  


Get Through This Together

Hopefully, your family gathering will go off without a hitch. However, if you have had a nightmare dinner in the past, or can see potential for chaos brewing, it can help to have an ally to help you through. Come up with a code word or signal. Agree to intervene if you see your partner waive the white flag. Distract, divert and give each other an “out”. Plan ahead for child care and clean up. Plan activities, things to do or jobs that can give you an excuse to focus on something else. You may not need any of this, but having an ally can reduce your stress.  Knowing you can call for back-up will help you weather anything your holiday gathering serves up.