How to Handle Family Time (When You’ve Already Had Too Much)

“Home is where you are loved the most and act the worst.”

— Marjorie Pay Hinckley

The holidays are a bit of a mixed bag, right?

On one hand, there’s a lot of great food around, and you don’t feel as bad about eating it as you would during beach season. 

On the other hand, there’s a LOT of family time.

Depending on your family, this can be a joy or a trial . . . or even a bit of both.

In a year that’s seen most of us trapped inside with our families for months already, the prospect of spending focused holiday hours together—during a pandemic, in an election year—might just be the tipping point.

You might love your family—hopefully you do!—but that doesn’t mean you always get along. Or that every moment you spend together is relaxing and joyous.

So, how can you make the most of family time this holiday season without getting overwhelmed?


BOOKEND FAMILY TIME

This tip involves a certain level of self-awareness, and it can save you lots of distress if you use it right.

You’ve probably heard of the “compliment sandwich,” where critical feedback is nestled between two compliments to soften the overall effect.

Look ahead to your holiday plans, and mentally flag the things you know will make you stressed and anxious. Then, bookend those events on either side with activities that are comfortable and familiar. 

For me, parties with people I don’t know are super uncomfortable.

Believe it or not, I’m an introvert. 

If I’m not speaking in front of a group, I’m probably the guy in the corner who’s not talking to anyone or figuring out the proper ratio of carrot sticks to potato chips that I can have from the snack table.

I know this about myself, so I’m on the lookout for when I get squirrely or irritable. 

Alone time or quality time with one or two people recharges my batteries. 

Small talk, especially with strangers, drains them.

When I travel to see my family at the holidays, I make sure to bookend any large gatherings with some quality alone time.

This could mean excusing yourself for a few minutes to “check on work,” and then playing solitaire in a guest bedroom for a few minutes.

It could mean pretending to sleep an hour later than you really did, and just reading in bed for a while.

If you’re a social butterfly and your family still drives you nuts, it could mean that you make plans with friends in the area and wedge those plans in between family functions.

The idea is to anticipate the events that will be the most challenging for you, and make sure you’re breaking those up with activities that recharge you

Change your mindset from viewing this as “stolen time” from your loved one to seeing it as an investment in your relationship with your family.

When you’re at your best, you’ll enjoy your family time more, and vice versa. 


FOCUS ON POINTS OF AGREEMENT

A contentious election year and the alcohol that’s often served with holiday meals is a dangerous combination, especially if you and your family don’t always see eye to eye.

It’s up to you whether defending your view is worth fisticuffs with Uncle Bob over dessert, but very likely, divisive conversation will do more harm than good.

If you sense that your conversation is heading toward a dangerous area, focus on what you CAN agree on.

Maybe it’s just that the turkey is good (or bad, as the case may be). Or that the weather is unseasonably warm or cold this year.

It might not be the most riveting conversation you’ve ever had, but if it won’t end with Grandma in tears, a little bit of chat about the food and the weather isn’t a bad thing.

You can always commiserate with like-minded relatives later on.

If you just can’t avoid touchy topics like politics or religion, do your best to find common ground. @andrewjmellen Click To Tweet

Maybe your views on policy are different, but you can at least agree that caring for people less fortunate is a worthwhile pursuit. 

I’m always surprised when I learn that people who pursue policies that I could easily discount as uncaring or backward spend their free time volunteering for causes that I too support.

You might not be on the same political planet, but there’s usually at least something you can agree on.


HAVE AN EXIT STRATEGY

And if there’s nothing you can agree on, you can excuse yourself without throwing a tantrum or making it about you.

I already suggested that you bookend family time with “comfort zones” for yourself. Tailor those to your own needs.

One thing that makes ME comfortable is having an exit strategy in the form of my own transportation.

If I fly to visit my family, I’m at their mercy from the moment I land at the airport … unless I rent a car.

Otherwise, if I wanted to get out for a while on my own, I could use a ride sharing app or get only as far as I could cover on my own two legs.

Of course, Lyft or Uber or even taxis aren’t options in some rural places, so if that’s where you live or are headed, you may want to drive (if you own a car).

This does two things:

  1. It gives you some quiet hours in the car to bookend your visit.
  2. If you need to pick up and leave for an afternoon, you can do that without bending over backwards to find transportation. At any moment, you can leave the house and escape for a bit into the bubble of your own vehicle. 

And if you don’t own a car, as I didn’t when I lived only in Manhattan, figure out how YOU can get away when you need to in advance … so you aren’t trying to figure this out while stressed.

Whether your exit strategy is literal—like a car—or figurative—like a prepared excuse to take a break from your family’s company—it helps to arrive prepared. 

If you’re staying at home, or if YOU are the host, this is trickier. 

But you can almost always find pockets of time to slip away and enjoy an activity of your choice, even if it’s just 5 to 10 minutes.

There’s always something that needs checking on in a room where people aren’t … even if it’s just that “leaky faucet” in the powder room.

Give yourself the grace of stepping away to take care of yourself every now and then before you rejoin the fray.@andrewjmellen Click To Tweet


THE BOTTOM LINE

Whether your relationship with your family is fantastic or fraught, we all need time away. Especially this year, when we’ve been caged together for months without a break to start with.

The usual times we spend apart—commutes, work, school, etc.—have gotten a shake-up this year, and nerves are frayed.

This doesn’t mean your family’s a mess, or that you don’t love each other. It means that even the most loving and patient among us need a break sometimes. That’s okay.

This holiday season, take some time to look ahead and build in slots of time for yourself. 

It’s also ok if you need to bow out this year and video conference your way into some family time.

If being physically together is what you decide to do, sprinkle in activities that will bring you joy and/or rest, even if it means you’re spending some quality time alone in the midst of a family visit.@andrewjmellen Click To Tweet

And if flying and family visits both stress you out, don’t double down on your anxiety by flying to see family this year. 

Drive if you possibly can, or take another form of public transportation if that’s an option for you—and you feel safe traveling with strangers.

Create your own version of the “holiday enjoyment sandwich,” and use it to cushion any trouble spots that you know will cause you stress.

You’ll be much happier for it, and your family will thank you.
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