How to Survive a Holiday Family Gathering.

by KJ in #AmReading

In which i wildly digress into a topic important to many humans this time of year…

Once upon a time, I edited the parenting section of the New York Times. Back then it was called Motherlode, and over the course of my six years in the role I wrote thousands of things and and edited thousands more and also researched and wrote a book, How to Be a Happier Parent, that’s still available at your local bookstore etc, thank you very much.


I wrote some good stuff, and in the course of creating lasts week’s book gifting guide I came across these tips for surviving holiday family travel/gathering and thought they—along with the Happier Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays, which is actually a handy printable with a list of mantras to get you through the harder days and is WAY down at the end of this missive—might just come in handy.

But this is an email about books!! Yes it is. I have one single book rec this week, a book which I blurbed and described as “the funniest, most tender book about death—and life—that you will ever read. If you’ve ever loved anything I’ve recommended, I say to you now just go get We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman. Yes it’s got some sad bits but don’t be scared, did I EVER point you to a manipulative tear-jerker? NO I DID NOT. I hate sad books. And I loved this. This book will make you 100% happy to have the family you have and just be getting through the day. But not in a sappy way. Trust me here.

And now, some well researched advice from back when that was my gig. Next week we return to our regularly scheduled all-books-all-the-time programming.

With Thanksgiving coming, and the winter holidays zipping up close behind, many families are planning visits or travels with extended family. Those trips are a wonderful time to reconnect—but they can also be fraught. With that in mind, here are some tips for managing experiences and expectations for kids and parents alike.

Know why you’re going Not everything about a family holiday trip might be precisely a dream vacation for parents, kids or teens, but if you hold your reason for going close to your heart (and keep it on mental replay as well), you can diffuse your reaction to many tension-inducing moments before it begins. You’re there to spend time with family and deepen your own family connections, not to change Uncle Hugh’s political views or convince Great-Aunt Bernice not to buy everyone gender-specific plastic junk.

Know that you have a choice (of sorts) Here’s a thought: You really do have a choice. You could stay home, or go somewhere else. That choice might make everyone around you unhappy (possibly including your partner and kids) but it’s still a choice. Our kids have a choice too—we don’t want them to make it, but they could flat out refuse to get on the flight or out of the car.

We all have a choice. We feel like we don’t, because people are depending on us—but we do. We’re choosing to do some things that might be uncomfortable or not our top choice because those people are worth it. When we look at it that way, it can be easier to sit through a little discomfort, a little boredom, the fourth distant family member asking what your favorite class is.

All in, and all out Just as you have a choice, you should also have an out. Planning a few escapes during a family visit (even if it’s just nominating yourself to go get lattes for everyone) can give you a little breathing room and make you more able to be “all in” the rest of the time. Plan breaks for kids too (off to the park for a few hours!)

For teens, ask them to pick some “all in” time as well. Wouldn’t you trade an hour of your 14-year-old hooked up to her headphones for her having a solid half-hour-long heart-to-heart with your mother? A polite and engaged dinner for an evening locked in the guest room with TikTok? Better to plan for these things ahead of time than to argue about them huddled in the laundry room, knowing that your brother-in-law is in the living room making book on who will win.

Accept that not everyone is on the same page It would be lovely if every guest at the holiday table had come in with no baggage and a firm intention to make the day as pleasant as possible for everyone. That probably won’t be the case. Reminding yourself (and sometimes reassuring your kids) that everybody packs their issues up in their suitcases and totes them along can help us manage unpleasantness.

Start a conversation Holiday gatherings are better if we’re not all locked into small talk. “How’s work?” “So, do you like school?” “Where are you applying to college?” “Any progress on finding a new job?” Ugh. Grown-ups and teenagers alike can shift the attention away from a dull or sensitive topic with a plan for engaging the speaker elsewhere. Plant some memories with your teens that they can ask about (tell me about the time Aunt Aliza poisoned you with the mushrooms, Uncle Jeff?) or suggest other basics—movies, books, binge-worthy television—for finding common ground.

Not my circus. Not my monkeys. When all else fails, take a step back and look at these crazy people around you (and whisper to your teenager to do the same). You can’t control them. You can’t deny them. Sometimes, you can’t even like them. All you can do is love them, and let them perform their various circus acts while you sit quietly in the peanut gallery, doing your best to stay out of it. If the holidays are good for nothing else, they are good for giving us all a few good stories to tell when the New Year rolls around.

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Happy Thanksgiving, kids. Thanks for reading.

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