How to Make Family Gatherings Great Instead of Awful

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Some families are easy. Everyone finds it easy to get along, easy to have fun doing things together, and easy to work out problems. Unfortunately, I don’t know any families like that, but theoretically, they must exist.

(Photo Credit: flickr.com/johnangliss/)

A family gathering or reunion might be with your family of origin – or it might be with a different family or community you have decided to create or to join. Some extended families get together for every holiday and celebration, some for major events, some once a year, and some once every ten years. No matter whom the reunion is for and no matter how seldom or how often this happens, people have frequently told me things like:

“I keep telling myself I won’t get sucked in this time – and then I do get sucked in!”

“I look forward to getting together with a combination of anticipation – and dread!”

“We live in hope that this time it will be easier because we love each other and want to have fun together 
— but something always goes wrong!”

So why bother? Why go to the inconvenience and trouble of getting together with our often difficult families? This is a good question because a family reunion can cause a lot of stress and bad feelings. The answer is that, with some good luck and good planning, a family gathering can be a time to have fun, build and strengthen relationships, and provide a network of support in a sometimes large and lonely world.

For any group, here are some things to keep in mind in order to make the time together great instead of awful:

1. Embrace the Mixed Bag. The reality is that life is a mixed bag. People are a mixed bag. Family is a mixed bag. And I too am a mixed bag! Unless someone’s behavior is dangerous and destructive, embrace the fact that most families and most people are a mixture of kind and unkind, helpful and unhelpful, healthy and unhealthy. None of us is perfect.

It is hurtful to your purpose of getting the family together if you leave someone out because you don’t like this individual’s political beliefs, choice of romantic partner, or comments that were made last time that you never addressed but still resent. Define which part of the family/friendship group you are organizing this event for – and then be inclusive in your invitation. Everyone who is strongly connected by family or romantic ties to the members should be welcomed, unless that person is truly very dangerous.

Advice columnist Ann Landers had a wise response to readers who asked if she thought that they should get a divorce. Ann’s question was: “Are you better off with him or without him?”

Ask yourself, “Am I better off with these people or not? Is someone I love connected with these people in such a way that it is better for me to go to a family gathering or not?” If you decide to go to or organize a reunion, then find ways to make the best of the times you are together.

2. Be proactive in preventing potential problems. Define clear expectations and put them into writing ahead of time. Address issues such as:

  • Who will be paying how much for what?
  • Where will people stay? For how long? If it’s your home, what are your house rules?
  • Who will be responsible for helping to do what when?
  • How will children be supervised?
  • How will transportation be handled?
  • How will food be handled?
  • What animals will or will not be present? How will they be cared for?
  • What are the safety rules about driving, smoking, drinking, etc.?

3. Make an emotional safety plan. Think about and discuss ahead of time how to prevent and resolve problems. Common pitfalls to avoid are:

  • Upsetting discussions. A useful ground rule could be agree to disagree, but we will NOT attack each other for having different beliefs, remembering things differently, or being different than we wish. It is okay to ask that a subject be dropped or changed.
  •  The temptation to get even with or improve others or to complain. Agree that your gathering will NOT be a time to re-hash old hurts or complain or tease about someone’s life choices; etc. etc. Rather than complaining, agree to respect each other’s different points of view – and, if there is a problem that needs to be addressed, to problem-solve and offer to help rather than complaining about anyone.
  • Disagreements about supervision of children. If you are a child’s parent or guardian, take responsibility for staying in charge of that child’s safety and behavior. Ask rather than assume if you want someone else to supervise. Be sure your child is being safe and respectful with the environment, other children, and any animals. Unless you truly have permission or you must to prevent an emergency, do not try to supervise other people’s children.
  • Falling into old patterns. Negative old family dynamics can often ruin a good time. Remember that people can grow and change and don’t assume that they are the same. Remember that teasing remarks can hurt, even if everyone laughs. Focus on the positive in what people are doing rather than the negative. Tell yourself good stories about intentions rather than bad stories. Stay aware of your own patterns. The needs to be important, to be right, to be needed, and to be useful can all be very positive in their place – but have harmful consequences if these needs get in the way of our being in the moment, respectful of others, and mindful of what is actually going on.

The reality is that you cannot control what everyone will say or do. You can only stay in charge of yourself and of any children in your care. One friend recommends to just pretend that people are saying something different when they are being insulting. Another suggests making a list of the disrespectful or upsetting things you think different people are likely to do. Then, when it happens, you can say “Ah ha!” to yourself and count them rather than getting hurt. Remember the serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference!”

4. Make plans that have a maximum chance of success. Meeting the needs of different people can be very challenging. People have different ideas about what jokes or activities are fun or not fun; different kinds of health challenges; and different tastes. Remember that your primary goal is to get family members together in a safe and enjoyable way that builds strong healthy relationships. Here are logistics to consider:

  • Timing. You won’t find a time that works for everyone, but try to find a time that is possible for most people. Be creative and flexible. For example, can children miss one day of school in order to have a better chance of more comfortable weather?
  • Location. If the location is someone’s home, be sure that needs and boundaries are clear ahead of time. If you are choosing a location, think about whether everyone in your group can get there if they want to. Be aware of and plan for people’s potential problems with elevation, heat, cold, noise (from snoring, different times of waking up or going to sleep), uncomfortable beds, allergies, food, etc. Plan for bad weather, just in case. If possible, find a place that most people will feel is fun to go to.
  • Activities. Since your purpose is to get people together, have a place to gather with food and drinks where everyone can sit down comfortably. Nothing has to be fancy and people don’t have to fit around one table, but you do want people to have the sense of being at the same time in the same place. This room could be a large room or even outside if the weather is good. Have a variety of optional activities for different people to do besides sitting and looking at each other. Encourage people to split up and go out to do different things together.
  • Meals. Plan to have food and drinks available where people are gathering. Schedule at least some meals where people can sit together. Try to have food that everyone will enjoy, but allow for different tastes. If you enjoy cooking elegant meals, that’s great, but otherwise, make your life simple and just gather fresh tasty food that people are likely to want to eat.

5. Prevent accidents, fights, and illnesses. Family gatherings can sometimes feel like occasions for letting the rules go. The reality is that things can go from delightful to terrible in an instant. Someone gets injured. A child gets lost. Someone goes to the emergency room with food poisoning or a severe allergic reaction. The cold that one person has spreads to the whole group. The teenager who just got her license gets distracted while driving and crashes the car. An argument erupts where people say terrible things to each other or even get into physical fights. Some problems like these are unavoidable, but most can be prevented if you:

  • Use good hygiene. Wash your hands and remind everyone to do the same. Often. With soap. Before touching food. After using the bathroom. Cover a cough or sneeze with your elbow rather than your hand. Unless you’ve just washed your hands, avoid touching your face or the faces of others. If you or your child starts to get sick, protect other family members by keeping some physical distance and being even more careful about hand washing.
  • Ask people about allergies ahead of time and treat them with respect. Keep allergic substances away from allergic people. If even one person is allergic to something like dogs, cats, peanuts, room deodorizer, perfume, smoke, or onions, this person must be protected from exposure to the allergen.
  • Follow safe food handling and preparation practices. Don’t assume that everyone will know what these are. Either have experienced people handling your food, or provide guidance to someone who is not experienced.
  • Post signs as reminders about potential problems rather than just hoping people will remember. For example: Wash hands before food prep. Wash food carefully. Put perishables back in the refrigerator. Keep all peanuts out of the house. Dog free zone.
  • Supervise children until they have demonstrated a consistent ability to supervise themselves. If children are in a new place, this is terrific, but they might find hazards that would never have occurred to you. When many adults are potentially in charge, often no one is in charge. Be clear about handoffs, so that there is no doubt about who is supervising each child at each moment. Even if you are going back to a place that even teens have visited each year, have them tell you all the rules again for each activity, such as not diving when you cannot see the bottom of the lake. See the Kidpower article on Resisting The Illusion of Safety.
  • Use alcohol safely. Moderate enjoyment of alcoholic beverages is an important part of many family gatherings. Be realistic about potential problems. Accidents and arguments become far more likely when one or more people use alcohol or drugs to the point that they lose control of their behavior. If you know certain family members are likely to overindulge, make a plan ahead of time to keep them off the road, out of trouble, and away from children. Agree ahead of time that explosive topics will be avoided. Make sure that no one feels pressure to drink in order to belong. The potential problems with recreational drug use are similar and, of course, it is usually illegal.
  • Drive safely. Be sure that drivers stay focused on their driving while driving, do not speed, are not incapacitated, insist on passengers using seatbelts or appropriate booster seats or car seats for children, etc. Give passengers permission to speak up if someone’s driving makes them uncomfortable.
  • Be sensible and safe about sexual behavior. Sometimes members in some families enjoy joking or teasing about sex.  If you know this is true in your family, make ground rules ahead of time to avoid tension when people are together.  Agree that innuendos, flirting, or suggestive behavior should be okay with everyone present and that anyone can speak up if she or he feels uncomfortable. If there are children, agree that people will avoid suggestive behavior or language in front of them. Kids notice far more than adults think. Ask people to use good judgment even if they feel really attracted to someone. A family gathering is a great way to get to know someone better but is a terrible time to start a romantic relationship. If someone is destined to become the love of your life, you can make friends at the gathering and meet privately later if both of you still want to.

Remember Kidpower’s Underlying Principle that “Safety is more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense!” – and act accordingly to Put Safety First!

6. Take responsibility for making this a good time for everyone. Use family gatherings as an opportunity to practice good manners and to use respectful and effective communication skills. Help with the planning and logistics. Suggest activities. Listen to the ideas and needs of others. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Speak up. Be prepared to change the plan when it’s not working for you or others. Do your best to:

  • Make it easy and practical for everyone to help in ways that work for them. Organize jobs so they are manageable rather than overwhelming. Set people up for success. Be patient rather than annoyed if someone needs specific directions for how to do a specific task.
  • Remember – others can NOT read your mind and WILL miss messages. Take responsibility for speaking up clearly and repeatedly about your needs. If you think something is important, and you fail to speak up in a clear and repeated way, don’t blame anyone but yourself for the fact that your wishes or concerns were not heard.
  • Be safe with touch, teasing, and games. Kidpower’s safety rule is that touch, teasing, or games for fun or affection should be the choice of each person, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and never a secret. Be sure that children and adults all understand and know how to follow this rule. If you are not sure, supervise their activities and step in when needed. See articles: Touch in Healthy Relationships and Why Affection and Teasing Should Be A Child’s Choice.
  • Let people know if their actions or words are hurtful. Don’t assume that people don’t care just because they don’t notice or listen at first. Don’t wait until you are furious or vent to others instead of letting this person know. If someone says or does something you find hurtful, say so respectfully without attacking their character or intentions. See article: Speaking Up About Putdowns.
  • Make it safe for people to give you feedback. Most of us don’t like being told what to do or that we did something hurtful or wrong. But not being told when our behavior upsets others deprives us of the chance to grow or to change behavior that might be damaging to our relationships. Do your best to listen. Try not to punish someone who is brave enough to give you feedback by sulking, refusing to speak to the person, getting upset with the person for telling you that the remark was hurtful, complaining to others about the person, or overly apologizing to the point that it does not sound genuine. See article: Conscious Apologies.
  • Know when and how to interrupt. Some family members don’t talk at all. You can encourage them by leaving space for them to say something and asking respectful (not intrusive) questions. Other family members, myself included, have a tendency at times to talk ALOT and, when we get going, to not pause long enough for someone else to get a word in edgewise. Sometimes what we are saying is very interesting, but sometimes it is too much of a good thing – and sometimes boring or even upsetting. Make an agreement that it is okay to interrupt someone who talks a lot mid-word and that you don’t have to wait for the story or topic to be finished. People can be given permission to say, “Excuse me. I’d like a chance to say something.” Or, “Excuse me, we’ve talked enough on this topic. I’d like to talk about something else. ”Or, “Excuse me, this topic upsets me. Please change the subject.” Or, “Excuse me, I need to go do something else. “ and leave and go do something else, even if it is sitting outside for a little while.
  • Be mindful about the impact of what you say and do. South Indian spiritual leader Sri Sathya Sai Baba advises, “Before you speak, think – Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? Will it hurt anyone? Will it improve on the silence?” Don’t complain about people behind their backs instead of raising concerns directly. See articles: Integrity in Communication and Five Communication Strategies That I Already Know – But Forget to Use.

7. Appreciate and Celebrate. Getting diverse family members together and having a mostly good time is a triumph that deserves to be celebrated and remembered long after it is over. A successful event takes a lot of work that should not be taken for granted.

Often the individuals who take leadership in organizing family gatherings happen can be annoying, because overcoming the obstacles of getting people together takes a lot of energy. Even if they are annoying, let the people you love know how much you appreciate them. Imagine that you might never get another chance to tell them, and make sure that you really do it! Show appreciation by:

  • Thanking each person in a very specific way for their individual contributions – clearly and repeatedly. Remember that getting there and being present for one person can be as much of a challenge as cooking a six-course meal is for another.
  • Giving much more air time in what you say about what went well than about what you were unhappy about or would like to see changed. If you say “thank you” briefly and generally and then give a lengthy detailed description of what you think was wrong, don’t be surprised if someone ends up feeling unappreciated.
  • Taking lots of photos to help everyone enjoy good memories about the event after it’s over – but make sure the photos are fun rather than hurtful. Try to get them out quickly – but, soon or later, do be sure to get them out. Check first before sharing photos on Facebook or any public Internet site. Make sure you have the permission of the individual, or, if a child is a minor, the child’s parents.
  • Offering to help plan the next event. Give your ideas for what might be fun to do. Rather than complaining, give specific suggestions about to do things in a better way and offer to help to make that happen.

When people gather in a mutually respectful, safe, and joyful way, the time together can make a huge difference in creating deeper connections, developing stronger relationships, and having lasting memories that warm our hearts throughout our lives. I know that all these reminders and preparation can seem like a lot of work. However, in my experience with both personal and professional group dynamics, some groundwork on the front end can save a world of trouble on the back end. I hope you will try these ideas out and would love to hear your stories about what works and what doesn’t as well as any ideas you have for our healthy group dynamics book. Please email greatgroups@kidpower.org



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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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