George Burns once said that happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family…in another city. Summer is a time for celebrations, reunions, and family get-togethers.
While reconnecting with loved ones is an exciting opportunity to catch up and have fun, consider the following tips to keep your occasions light, polite, and fun.
Family members are more alike than different. Family differences, however, are always more compelling and distracting. That means tempers can run high at any moment and create bad feelings instead of good ones. Celebrating your commonality, your fond memories, and love for each other, can be the source of harmonious family gatherings. To get on common ground, your family reunions need some rules and parameters.
1. Plan Activities to Engage Everyone
Even contentious relatives can comfortably watch football, baseball, or soccer without having any difficulties. Plan for just such an activity. Everyone will appreciate it. Watch a local soccer, football or baseball game together. Play a game outdoors like volleyball, baseball, basketball, ping pong—or your own family favorite—that everyone can join in. Go to the beach. Have a picnic where everyone can bring something. Even a beach ball, a Frisbee, folding chairs etc. are contributions. It doesn’t have to be food or beverage.
2. Share the Tasks
Five people hovering around the grill is guaranteed to cause problems. Spread out, even if you’re in the back yard: Clear limit-setting with family members both before and during a get-together are key. If everyone knows specifically what their role is, it is easier for them to comply. Examples of task setting are: Jim manages the games with the children. Sam arranges the beverage table. Cousin Martha is the swim expert and supervises swimming. Grandma and Aunt Sally set up the picnic table. Uncle Pete grills the hot dogs. Alex manages the basketball game.
3. Avoid “Meaningful Talk”
Sometimes small talk is good talk. “Meaningful” talk, however can be merely an excuse for a verbal root canal. Resentful family members may feel that gatherings are a time to resolve some long-standing disagreements. They are wrong. Family reunions are about coming together. Table that lingering resentment for another time. Bad behavior should not be tolerated. If Uncle George always gets beet-red, yelling at the top of his lungs about something that happened five years ago, he needs clear directions to stop and have a time out.
4. Leave Politics, Religion and Personal Values at Home
Here’s a big one. Politics, religion, personal values, politics (yes I said it twice) need to be taboo where families don’t agree. Even the choice between burgers and dogs can incite someone’s temper. Tell everyone at the beginning that some subjects are going to be off limit. Should disagreements and heavy argues begin, graciously and quickly move the conversation to neutral ground. That’s probably the reason weather, sports, traffic, and celebrities were invented. Controversial topics are always high-risk and should be avoided.
5. Rethink Alcohol (avoid marijuana altogether)
Alcohol may be the celebration and relaxation drink, but it also can be the lightning rod for trouble. Rethink the amount of alcohol you have available and encourage people to limit their alcohol usage. None of the tactics and techniques for family harmony in reunions will work if family members are drunk, or heading in that direction. Intoxication trumps good manners, civility and perspective every time. Drunk often means out of control. In states where marijuana is legal as a recreation substance, be aware that it’s never good to have any marijuana products around children and teens.
6. Keep Your Personal Space and Have an Exit Strategy
Unfortunately, some families are impaired by substance abuse, personality problems, or mental health issues. The reasoned approaches above are likely to be inadequate. When your personal happiness is at risk, keeping your distance and limiting your exposure to such an environment are the best course of action. Arrive just before the potato salad and leave just after the ice cream. Eat and run is the way to survive and thrive where family dysfunction reigns.
7. Don’t Go If Your Family Poses Emotional Risk
For people from families where any exposure is unacceptable, absence is the better part of valor. Give yourself permission not to spend your precious time with your dysfunctional, or toxic, family members. Give up some of your mental “musts and shoulds.” There is no law that says you must be with people who hurt or put you at risk.
There are many ways to deal with difficult family situations, and there is no “right” way.
Some people have chosen to form a close circle of healthy friends and celebrate their summers in a peaceful manner. Any gathering of like-minded and mutually respectful people reinforces the similarities that bring us together. That truly is “family.”
A Reach Out Recovery Exclusive: By Robert Boxley, PhD @ Centerstone Florida
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