Psychologist Tells Us The Prep Work That Can Help You Feel At Ease During Holiday Family Gatherings

It's that time of year again: you need to engage with family members who you prefer avoiding. You may have spent your early childhood picking up on subtle signs your family member is toxic, but as you transition into adulthood, navigating these red flags isn't easy. In fact, it shouldn't be easy. Familial relationships are complex, beautiful, misunderstood, dramatic, and repairable, often regardless of time spent apart.

However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't anticipate the regularly scheduled program of holiday parties. How do you best prepare for dinner with your family? What are the easiest ways to avoid unwanted conversations? Is there a family member who you particularly dislike? Are you trying to smooth over an adult sibling rivalry? These are all important questions to consider, but they're also reminders of how stressful these situations can be. And though it seems easiest to just skip out on celebrations, the reality is that isn't always an option, nor is it necessarily solving anything.

The good news is there are some steps you can take ahead of time to prevent family drama from coming up again at the dinner table. Neuropsychologist Dr. Aldrich Chan exclusively tells Women.com that reframing your perspective can help — shift your focus to spending time with loved ones, sharing traditions, and remembering any fond memories from previous holidays, rather than any old grievances. Beyond that, there are some actual things you can do to lessen the chances of something bad happening.

Reach out to one person beforehand

As you get closer to a major event, it may be helpful to reach out to one trusted family member who will have your back if something goes awry, Chan exclusively tells Women.com. "Inform a trusted friend or family member attending the event about your boundaries." Having someone aware of the situation will allow you to feel safer should an argument with someone else escalate. 

You don't need to gossip about the person who you have conflict with, but you can tell them what you're worried about, and any other feelings you think they may relate to. You may even find yourself being heard and seen in a way you haven't before while forming a meaningful connection with someone who will be at the table with you. "Having a supportive ally can be beneficial, providing comfort and assistance in navigating potential challenges," Chan explains to Women.com.

If you're worried about being physically uncomfortable at the event, Chan says its totally acceptable and a good idea to create physical distance. "Plan to physically position yourself in a way that allows for personal space. This might involve strategically choosing your seat or engaging in activities that naturally create distance," they told Women.com. You can also ask that person you've formed a bond with to sit next to you can also help relieve some tension. You may be lucky enough to connect with someone who's hosting and facilitating the dinner party. Getting a feel for how the night will go, what activities are in store, and how you can avoid feeling overwhelmed will prepare you ahead of time.

Rehearse possible scenarios

Once you've reached out to another attendee, rehearsing what you know about the dinner can be beneficial. Per PureWow, practicing the rinse-repeat scenarios that commonly take place at your family dinners can help you anticipate your reaction. If you're expecting family members to ask about your career, have an answer prepared ahead of time to avoid being taken by surprise. It will help you stay focused, foster confidence, and focus on joy rather than a hurtful comment. "While it's important to approach such situations with flexibility and an open mind, preparing responses in advance can reduce the stress of feeling caught off guard," Dr. Chan exclusively tells Women.com.

As we mentioned before, having a positive outlook on what lies ahead will help you stay focused and optimistic. For example, recall any fond memories from previous dinners that you can bring up at the next one (or work off of). If your grandmother admired your dress at the last dinner party, use the next opportunity to compliment her (and get started on the right foot). Once you've gone through all possible scenarios, you're ready to set boundaries and create an exit plan.

Have boundaries and an exit plan in place

With a concrete plan on how to set boundaries and leave the function if need be, you'll have much less to worry about and anticipate. According to WonderMind, setting boundaries starts with getting clear on your needs. Finding a way to connect with yourself authentically can help bring productive emotions to the surface, which will eventually lead to knowing and setting your boundaries. It could be as short as "I don't want to talk about politics at dinner" or "I'm not open to answering questions about my love life or career."

If your family is adamantly pushing your boundaries, it's okay to have an exit plan. Enforcing your boundaries is half the battle, and that means walking away when they're crossed. Depending on whose house you're at, have a room in mind to escape to or another strategy to leave the situation (maybe your sibling will accompany you). It may be beneficial to start the night by explaining how you'll react to boundaries being crossed, so your family knows there are real consequences for their actions.