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7 Tips for Awkward Family Gatherings

tips for awkward family get togethers

Growing up in Chicago with a large extended Italian family meant four things during the holidays:

  1. We never went to the Olive Garden - those commercials lie.
  2. We'd gather together and eat lots of food, including multiple dishes of pasta next to whatever turkey or main course was supposed to take center stage, next to even more multiple dishes of pasta.
  3. One of my aunts (who couldn't cook) would bring a can of black olives as her contribution. No one knew why, nor to this day has anyone ever asked her.
  4. There would be lots of expressive family hugs and kisses, and then a huge disagreement among at least two family members, followed by smaller disagreements among other families about the huge fight, followed (strangely enough) by a lengthy game of Trivial Pursuit (which took place on furniture encased in plastic covers)... and we all ended the night with lots of expressive family hugs and kisses.

Ever have an awkward family gathering? Ever have one multiple times in a row?

These gatherings have the potential to be amazing, which is perhaps why you travel long distances in cramped vehicles on icy roads because "your family wants to see you." The next thing you know, you're sitting around a huge meal near a distant cousin you have strained conversations with or opening random presents from a well-meaning uncle who assumed you wanted an automated singing moose head.

Maybe the awkwardness will never completely go away, but you can navigate it intentionally to nurture some of that amazing potential you keep hoping wins out.

Here are 7 tips for awkward family gatherings that just might save your sanity:

1. Change one thing: Your family may have a tradition that keeps things the same every year, or perhaps a rotating schedule for hosting. Either way, decide to do one thing differently this year to be intentional versus passive. For example, bring different food than you normally do or leave earlier than everyone else. Obviously do this with gentleness and respect, but also allow yourself to feel even  a small sense of ownership over your part of the experience instead of only feeling reactive.

2. Recognize the dynamics: Soak this liberating truth in: you probably get along better with your friends than your family, and that's understandable. You've chosen your friends for how they complement your life but your family is bonded to you whether you're like-minded or not. Realizing this can help you quit expecting everyone to get along and to instead focus more on loving people despite their differences.

3. Rehearse beforehand: If you know someone is going to bug you about your job, kids, or other personal topic, practice that conversation in your head to develop an intentional response. Feel free to get stealthy, like slyly steering the conversation toward topics you'd rather talk about or giving a simple answer and letting awkward silences do the rest. You don't have to answer every question in the way someone wants you to answer it.

4. Be fully present: In contrast to the last tip, it's valuable at times to wholeheartedly talk with family members we disagree with. Let your body language lead the way by giving face-to-face attention; don't ignore their humanity or an opportunity to be challenged by an alternative perspective. You're not talking with an "irritation" - you're talking with a family member.

5. Stay off social media: Someone else will be having a better family gathering than you (or at least appear to be). Holidays are often when people go online to brag about how amazing their experience is with hashtags like #WeAreFamily or #TheGreatestLoveOfAll. Take your photos and post them a day or two later so you can take part in your gathering without comparing it to others.

6. Footnote tensions: Sometimes a family funk happens because of something someone did in the past or typically does at every gathering. Other times the tension is rooted in not knowing what to do with family members who tell us what they think without considering how it makes us feel. If things get intense, mentally footnote why things escalated so you can deal with the source and not merely the symptom. You may also want to identify "problem areas" ahead of time, like a family member who just lost a job or is struggling somehow, so you can show empathy with no strings attached instead of resenting their demeanor.

7. Settle in: This is your family. Let me say it again: this is your family. You're not a victim to their whims but a participant with a voice, so claim your ground and enjoy the experience.  Try connecting with your favorite family members to build up for those who drain you. Build in "outs" by suggesting everyone go see a movie or hit a store together. Look out for the host by using coasters, picking up trash, and keeping kids out of rooms they shouldn't be in. You're already there so you might as well get into it.

One more thing... everybody is always hinting about something, even if they don't realize it. You'll be one of them. The same grace you expect from others is something they need from you.

And if all else fails, find something to "look at" together. It could be a funny movie that everyone can laugh at. Or perhaps it's diving deeper into the Christmas story by pulling a Linus and sharing from Luke 2.

Maybe if we keep these simple guidelines in mind, we'll move beyond fulfilling our obligations and really enjoy time with our family. It might even be fun.

Does any of this help? How do you navigate awkward family get-togethers?

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Showing 8 comments
  • Lisa

    Thanks!! I am from a loud, boisterous family, whose members make a competition out of everything and love to be right. It can be fun, but it can also be tiring. I have learned in my thirties that I don’t have to participate in EVERY family activity during the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

    • Tony Myles

      Well said, Lisa! There is always a measure of stretching ourselves, but that’s different than breaking ourselves. Hope and pray you have an amazing Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year season!

  • Liz Nickerson

    Very helpful article! There is so much expectation around the holidays and many people feel bad if they don’t want to get together with their family, and sad that other families are so perfect. Your article really normalized the feelings most people have and gave helpful suggestions!

    • Tony Myles

      Thanks so much, Liz! Isn’t it crazy how much something that is intended for restoration causes perspiration? 🙂 Hopefully we can all make this an amazing experience the other way.

  • Nan

    We always gather at my husband’s family home and now the kids are grown. I’m ready for a new tradition, but no one else is. Can you give some tips on how to change?

    • Tony Myles

      Hi Nan! I imagine there’s a reason why you’re feeling like it’s time for a change. Perhaps things have felt awkward if your kids are grown but other families still have theirs? Or maybe all the kids are grown?

      One thing that can be helpful if you stick with the same home/tradition is to introduce something that crosses all ages. For example, start up an Uno competition – all ages can play it, and you can even come up with a makeshift trophy/plaque that the winner each year gets to have their name put onto.

      Another option is to make your husband’s family one stop among others for the holidays. Or (and you really can do this) only visit for an hour or two, and then leave, explaining only that you will be “doing a new tradition, just the two of you.” You don’t have to share what it is – even if it’s just the two of you seeing a movie together. The point is that the two of you are just as much “family” as the extended family gathering.

      On that note, you can also shift gears by staying home and sending gifts or a special food/dessert in your honor to the party. Just a few random ideas – hope one helps!

  • Clare

    How about surviving from a friend’s family’s friend dinner at their house? What should i do? I really really need it as soon as possible :(((

    • Tony Myles

      Great question, Clare. Honestly? I think it depends on why you think you’re there. If it’s to “be nice” then you’ll have a ticking clock in your head as you wait to leave. If it’s more to “invest” then you’ll see every awkward moment as an opportunity.

      In a local FB group I’m in, a random woman posted: “7 days until “Christmas for the misfits” if you or anyone you know doesn’t have a family to go have dinner with, please give them my information! We just eat, watch movies and relax….so, if you don’t mind dad jokes, lame random singing and dancing and eating way too much food, you’re welcome here!!!! Don’t worry, we do not do gifts. I may not have much to give but I can give a full belly ♥️❤️”

      I don’t know who she is, but I love her spirit. If you consider how Christmas is really all about God humbly coming into our lives in a touchable way, I see the weird stuff we think we need to endure as a chance to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

      So, 3 quick tips:

      1) Pray. Ask God to work through you that night. This is not you trying to be good, but Him and His power loving and leading others.

      2) Be a good finder. When you see or hear something that’s good, praiseworthy, excellent, pure and so on… point it out. “Wow, I love how you love your family!” or “The passion you feel about that is inspiring.” etc

      3) Have a wingman. Let your friend know you want to be a blessing, but will need perspective at times if it gets weird. Work together. There’s a reason Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs. 🙂

      Merry Christmas!

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