Holiday Survival Tips for Toxic Family Gatherings

The topic of holiday gatherings with extended families was being discussed recently among some friends of mine, and it became apparent that many families dread The Big Family Holiday Dinner because it can take place under very undesirable circumstances. Regardless of socio-economic status, it seems that nearly every extended family includes a few rotten apples along with the pretty, shiny ones. In some cases, the rottenness is merely aggravating, while in others it can be seriously intimidating… or worse. If you are blessed with a truly wonderful family, take some time to concentrate on just how blessed you really are. For the rest of you, allow me to share the following holiday survival tips and advance planning secrets that worked well for getting us through less-than-festive holidays in classic Guilt-Free style. As always, I advocate doing what works best for your immediate family: your children, your spouse, and yourself. Never mind what the grandparents or siblings or aunts and uncles want you to do, expect you to do, or freely tell you that you should do — Guilt-Free Homeschooling (or Guilt-Free Life in general) is not accomplished according to others’ expectations. Let them do what works for them; you need to do what is best for you.

Absolutely, definitely, unquestionably prepare your children in advance for things that you expect might come up in the extended family situation, such as excessive consumption of alcohol, smoking, or bad language, and discuss how you want your children to react to the types of behavior they do not normally see at home. Forewarned is forearmed, and no family is perfect. Talk with your children beforehand, preparing them for what they will likely see and/or hear and from whom (read: which people to avoid). If your polite, well-behaved, morally upstanding children know ahead of time that Auntie Mary or Uncle Henry will be chain-smoking and downing an endless supply of adult beverages, they will be less likely to be shocked into uttering a potentially embarrassing response and igniting a scene that would stun the Hatfields and McCoys.

When discussing expected behavior, I explained our family’s rules and standards and contrasted them with other family’s rules, so that my children would understand why we had the rules we did. (Pointing out the absence of certain rules in other families sufficiently explained why some of our cousins behaved the way they did.) When my youngsters questioned why another child was allowed to play a violent video game or watch an undesirable video, I had a response ready that usually settled the matter to their satisfaction: “Well, if he was my child, then he wouldn’t be allowed to do that.” Occasionally, that philosophy would backfire on me, and my children would point out some wonderful privilege that another cousin boasted (usually something that I didn’t want or couldn’t afford for my children). At that point, I had to use the “things are seldom what they seem” tactic and help my children see The Bigger Picture: was that single privilege taking the place of more important things (to us) that we enjoyed every day (such as the privilege of pursuing our own interests through homeschooling)? When we examine all the facets of others’ lives, we can nearly always find areas that we would not enjoy. The trick here is to help your child (or your spouse, or yourself) see all the areas of his own life as a whole, not just the overstocked toy room or the fancy electronic gadget du jour (or the island vacation or the 5-bathroom house or the 4-stall garage filled with shiny, sparkling chrome). A few minutes of focusing on the blessings in your own life will lead you to realize that you really wouldn’t want to trade lives (and problems, debts, or tax brackets) with anyone.

It helped us to have a “code word” worked out ahead of time — something my kids could come and safely tell me while I was surrounded by other relatives (“I have a headache” or “My tummy hurts”), usually spoken while trying to diminish the twinkle in their eyes, that would tell me they wanted Mom’s stealth-mode intervention. Since our large family gatherings were always loud and everyone tends to overeat, the headache and tummy ache lines were spoken in truth, but with the added benefit of our coded meaning. It was the timing of the comment that told me as much as the words themselves. “I’m a little tired” can easily hold the double meaning of “I need a break from all these hyper-sugar-buzzed cousins — please let me sit with you until they get tired of waiting for me and go off to do something else.” I would then invite my child to sit with me for a while, and we would start a table game and change the activity level to something much less toxic than what-new-swear-words-have-you-learned-in-public-school-this-week.

Let your kids take along a “bag of tricks,” containing an assortment of favorite by-myself activities: a book to read, a puzzle book, or a personal video game will allow your child a retreat into a semblance of personal space and provide a break in the midst of the chaos. [Caution: Do NOT take things that could be easily broken by bullying cousins.] Include some one-on-one games, such as Connect Four or Battleships, to play with one special person, and larger group games, such as Apples to Apples, Uno or SET cards, or dominoes so they can invite others to play along with them. Our experience was that the toxic cousins would run far away when my kids pulled out an educational game or activity, resulting in much-coveted peace and quiet! My kids quickly learned which games would attract the intelligent relatives and repel the undesirables, so you may correctly assume that those games became their favorites to take along to family gatherings. (We also learned that taking games with the fewest pieces possible helped avoid lost parts from their favorite games.)

A table game can improve a toxic atmosphere by refocusing some people and disinteresting others enough that they will leave the room. Play the game with just your children, if necessary, or include a few others — not everyone under the roof needs to be involved. My family’s gatherings usually included the men’s cribbage game at the card table, a television in one room dedicated to football and another television elsewhere dedicated to video games, one wide-spreading group game (such as dominoes) on the dining room table, and an assortment of smaller games for the kids to take wherever they could find room enough to play. Remember that the educational games (e.g. Scrabble) that may be fun for homeschooled kids will quickly turn away the cousins/aunts/uncles who do not value learning, knowledge, and brain exercises. Eliminating score-keeping will minimize undue competitiveness, and relaxing a few rules can maximize the fun and adapt the play for various ages and abilities. If you are plagued with know-it-all relatives, bring along a new game that they are less likely to be familiar with. You can selectively choose games that work with only a specific number of players or choose “party” games that work for any number, depending on how you need to manipulate the crowd to your advantage.

My children used to stick their noses in a book just long enough to get away from their cousins (who would flee from anything resembling education or schoolwork). Reading a book can give an introverted child an important quiet-time break, transporting him to a more secluded environment. Historical novels can carry the reader to a peaceful, civilized era where people spoke eloquent language and treated each other with dignity and respect. Detective stories & mysteries focus the thoughts on solving a specific problem, and biographies draw attention to someone else’s life for a while. (If those sound preferable to a day with your relatives, you may want to take along a book for yourself!)

Are you dreading the inevitable homeschooling interrogation? (See Discouraging Families) You don’t have to take on every debate that is proffered. A brief answer followed by smiling silence can do more to make your case than a well-rehearsed discourse. For example, the acid-tongued challenge of “Are you still homeschooling those kids?” can be answered by a very confident “Yes!” and nothing more. That effectively turns the tables back on your accuser, forcing him to come up with an actual line of reasoning against homeschooling, which you can then refute with facts, if you haven’t walked away from the debate by then. (Be aware that offering too much information at once can work against you.) Meanwhile, change your tactics from defense to offense: start dealing out the pack of SET cards and watch your kids astound the crowd with their warp-speed abilities to spot Sets. The same people who were so recently criticizing your “inadequate” academics will slink away and develop a sudden interest in the football game’s halftime show.

Is your problem that your toxic older parent treats you (an adult parent yourself) as though you were still a child? Your first duty is to your own children, not to your overly-controlling parent. (See “Parent” Is a Verb) Yes, it is possible to respect an older parent while still standing up for your own children. Others of us may have to deal with the Know-It-All relative, the one who feels the need to be involved in every generation’s decisions, from what foods go on your child’s plate to who puts what decoration on which part of the Christmas tree. (See The Know-It-All Attitude) When a Know-It-All starts imposing his or her views on your unfortunate child, it’s time to intervene and disrupt that negativity.

Let me make this very clear: your family (your spouse and children) are your #1 priority.

  • IT IS OKAY to limit contact (shortened periods of interaction) with those whose rules/standards will have a serious, negative impact over an extended period of time (and your gut instinct will accurately tell you when that time has been reached).
  • IT IS OKAY to supervise contact with those who cannot be trusted to behave in a civilized manner on their own.
  • IT IS OKAY to cut off contact with those who may actually cause harm.
  • IT IS OKAY to leave early! Make whatever excuse you need to, and leave. You can still redeem the remainder of a miserable day with a *good* family activity with just your own kids: pizza, ice cream, a movie out, family game night, or just a favorite video and popcorn at home. (Trust me — it works!) If you absolutely cannot depart, take your kids for a walk or go into a back bedroom and read them a story or watch a family-friendly video or do whatever you can do to disrupt the impact of the negative influences and create some happier moments in the day.
  • These are YOUR children: if you need to limit, supervise, or cut off their exposure to certain toxic relatives, do it. Nothing — especially not the pseudo-feelings of a drunken, vulgar, distant relative who won’t remember his abhorrent behavior tomorrow and would deny it anyway — nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of your children (and your spouse) in these formative years. (You will be surprised at the amount of respect you will gain by standing up to oafish brutes who can’t remember how to behave in public.)

Don’t shut family members out completely UNLESS they have proven themselves so extremely toxic as to be a genuine danger to the health or safety of your children, your spouse, or yourself. That circumstance is at an entirely different level from the typical family gathering with merely annoying relatives. This may include your child’s extreme food allergies and the relative who thinks “it’s all in your head” and insists on slipping the child some of the suspect food when you’re not looking, or it could be a relative with pedophilia issues that the rest of the family casually dismisses as “harmless.” Follow your instincts: they will seldom be wrong. Don’t allow something now that you will regret later.

It is not necessary to be insulting or to purposely hurt feelings by bluntly declaring “We can’t stand to be around you any longer!!” It is usually enough to say “We need to go now.” Use the weather or the traffic as an excuse, if needed, or say “Joey’s tired, and we need to take him home.” (Little Joey may not actually be in need of immediate sleep, but Joey may certainly be tired of being picked on by his bigger cousins, or he’s tired of Aunt Sarah pinching his cheeks every 8.3 minutes, or he’s tired of Uncle Joe reminding him of how Joey is his namesake — when the last thing Joey ever wants in this life is to grow up to be anything at all like creepy, stinky Uncle Joe!) Family is forever, so tolerate as much as is reasonable by finding ways to make the uncomfortable situations more bearable. You could ultimately end up with a fabulous reputation for being the fun and smart branch of the family who always bring those great games!

What if you’re destined to spend several days with tiring relatives due to air travel restrictions? Take your children for a walk around the neighborhood, take them to a movie, play a game with your kids, read a chapter or two from a good book together. Change the activity. Change the topic of conversation. Change the channel. Do something to break the cycle and disrupt the toxic flow. Even if you are not normally the intermediary type, try to stretch yourself in this situation for the sake of your children. Speaking up once may be all that is required to let others know where the line is and when they have stepped over it. There may come a point where continued exposure to certain relatives can become a negative influence to your children, instead of your presence being a positive influence to the others. If affordable, retreating to a cheap motel for even one night will give your family a break from all the relatives and allow you a few blessed private moments to yourselves. You may indeed by trapped in a relative’s home this year, but you can plan ahead for diversions while you are there and make other arrangements for next year.

Are you hosting this year’s family dinner? Invite an individual or family from church/work/etc. to join your family gathering who would not otherwise have close family with whom to share the holidays. They can serve as a “buffer” for keeping your relatives on their best behavior — most people are less relaxed around strangers and won’t be as likely to speak or act as freely. Use this to your advantage! You get the double blessing of hosting your friends (and the alternate topics of conversation they provide), and your troublesome relatives will be more likely to behave themselves.

Remember that your lives may be the only “Bible” your extended family will ever read. Don’t take that lightly. While there may be relatives who won’t listen to (or won’t allow) your testimony or attempts at sharing your faith, they will still see your lives, your actions, and your reactions. That “silent” witness will speak to them much more loudly than mere words ever could.

Yes, most of these tactics will mean that you spend your holiday working like an activities director or referee, rather than sitting back and catching up on all of the family gossip. However, sailing through the day and avoiding any huge blow-ups will be worth every bit of effort on your part, and that in itself will bring blessed relief from the previously anticipated tensions. Plan ahead, prepare your secret bag of tricks (games, books, etc.), and enjoy your holiday the best you can. Being prepared means fewer surprises, fewer shocks, fewer uncomfortable moments, and truly happy holidays!


  1. The Military Wife says:

    This is a great post. I especially appreciated the part about the code sentence! Very useful! Thanks!

  2. I just keep passing adult beverages to my toxic relative until she passes out. Problem solved. hahahaI'm Joking! I'm Joking!

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