Whether you're going to one family dinner or more, holiday celebrations are different and sometimes stressful. Some families get along really well, and they look forward to being together. They never speak harsh words or cry, get in a hurry, burn the rolls, forget to thaw the turkey or have a meltdown at any point. Other families just know that major conflict or hurt feelings are predictable, but they long for something different.
Whether your family gatherings are fun and carefree or they're not the stuff of your dreams, the way you choose to communicate at a get-together can make a huge difference in the way you feel when you head home.
Consider trying to get on the same page ahead of time. Talk about who is coming so you can prepare, especially if there will be extra people that you or your children don't know well or see often.
Most families have at least one person who has the potential to make extended family gatherings interesting, if not downright miserable. Instead of letting them get under your skin, take a deep breath, recognize you are only going to be around them for a limited time and don't allow them to rob you of your joy. You don't have to prove your point, have the last word or "win" in a conversation with them.
If you know that certain topics are super divisive with your family members, consider telling everybody that the hot topics are off-limits for discussion at the gathering.
Be self-aware, and teach your children to do the same. Talk about what to do if someone says something hurtful or gets on your nerves. In the moment, it is easy to forget that you have a choice when it comes to how you will respond. Discuss how you know when someone is getting the best of you: your heart starts beating faster, sometimes people feel warm, your palms sweat or you want to cry. All of those are warning signs to let you know to proceed with caution. Knowing these signs can help you stay in control of your emotions and how you choose to respond to the person. If this is a topic of conversation ahead of time, chances are good that you will be better prepared and won't feel the need to lash out, defend or lose it.
Believe it or not, getting enough rest can be a huge help when it comes to healthy communication with family members. Rest helps you to think clearly and to not be so on edge. When you are tired, it is easier for people to get the best of you.
Guard against anticipating too much about how things are going to go in general or with a certain person. You can actually make the situation worse if you have played scenarios over and over again in your head. It's one thing to prepare yourself; it's another thing to have yourself so on edge that if someone uses the wrong tone of voice or a certain word it sets you off.
If you think things are escalating and you don't feel like you are doing well, go take a walk to get some fresh air. If that's not an option, find a quiet place to breathe and calm down. Research indicates that just 20 minutes of doing something different will help you recalibrate and handle a situation better.
Sometimes it helps to bring a little structure to the gathering instead of everybody just hanging out, opening the door to who knows what. Keeping everybody occupied can go a long way toward keeping the peace and creating fun. Grab some boxes of graham crackers, gum drops, candy canes, pretzels and other fun treats, and let people make gingerbread houses. Or gather food items and such, and have everybody help make care packages for the local homeless shelter. Divide people into teams and play several rounds of Minute To Win It (this is easy for children and adults to do together). Grab a fun Christmas puzzle, and let everybody work on it. Once it's finished you can frame it. Play a game of Name That Tune: Christmas Edition. Anything that creates an atmosphere of fun is helpful.
Pay attention to others. If you really want to make someone feel special and set the tone for the day, take notice and be interested in the things that matter to them. Request that delicious casserole recipe, ask to see recent photos or find something to compliment about them. Ask them what the best part of the year has been for them.
Know when it's time to go. If you've tried all you know to try and you're either not enjoying yourself or you are feeling emotionally or physically drained, it may be time to make a graceful exit. Give everyone a hug or shake hands, say thank you and end your visit well.
Keep your expectations realistic. Acknowledge that perfect holiday celebrations can actually be overrated. After all, think about all the things you laugh about from past celebrations. It's probably not all the things that went just right.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.