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  • Writer's pictureInterval Health

When Family Gatherings Go Wrong

The holiday season is generally stressful for many reasons. This year, it had even more reasons to up our stress levels. Masks, COVID testing, and many getting COVID - the "gift" that keeps on giving. The holidays were not what many expected. And for these reasons and more, your family get together might have had tensions running high. So what should you do if that was the case for you?

Many people like to joke that they have a “dysfunctional family” as though it’s part of a natural charm. Sometimes, though, that kind of joking can be a cover-up for toxic family members or awkward situations. While the holidays might be behind us, family gatherings happen all year. Even if you look forward to them, for the most part, no family is immune to things going wrong.

Whether one or two people cause the problem or there are underlying familial issues that have never been brought to the surface, it’s important to know what to do when family gatherings go wrong. That doesn’t mean you need to play the role of a “fixer” for your family. Rather, your focus should be on protecting yourself and your own mental health if things start to fall apart.

So, what should you do?

Set Boundaries

If you already know your family has certain issues (or you have issues with certain members), set boundaries before you even attend a family event. It will reduce the risk of something going wrong that you’re directly involved in. Religion, politics and new for the pandemic holidays - vaccinations, masking, and testing are added to the list of "hot button topics."

If something does occur at a family gathering, you can keep your boundaries intact when it comes to who you talk to, how involved you become, and what you’re willing to talk about.

It’s important to make sure your family is clear when it comes to your boundaries. Most people are willing to respect and understand when someone they love sets clear and concise limits, and if they don’t, that person may be a bigger part of the problem than they’re willing to admit.

Don’t Fan the Flames

No matter what causes a gathering to become problematic, one of the best things you can do is to steer clear. There’s nothing wrong with healthy discussions or even productive disagreements. But, when your family is involved and emotions are high, it’s easy for people to say things they might not necessarily mean – or, things that they might regret later.

If there’s a situation happening that is causing your gathering to go south, consider stepping away for a while. Make sure you have a clear head before speaking. It’s even a good idea to encourage others to do the same. When everyone has some time to think and reflect, they’re more likely to come to a calmer conclusion, rather than saying or doing something they can’t take back.

Stand Up for Yourself

You may not be able to choose your family members. But, you can absolutely choose how you’re willing to let them treat you. If certain family members mistreat you by making condescending remarks or saying inappropriate things, it’s completely acceptable to stand up for yourself. Speak up, and don’t let them get away with it. You can speak up for other family members, too, if they aren’t willing to do it for themselves.

Will this approach cause some tension? Probably. But, it will let whoever is mistreating you know that it won’t be tolerated anymore. You’re not going to let their words continue to ruin family gatherings for you or anyone else.

Depending on the issues your family faces, sometimes the best thing can be to leave toxic people behind. Remember, you don’t have to attend every gathering, and you don’t have to interact with certain people. It’s also important to remember that you don’t have to make excuses for anyone just because they share your last name or bloodline. This is why boundary setting is so important.

Keep these suggestions in mind if you’re worried about your next family gathering taking a turn. These tactics can make a big difference in how you handle the situation, and how you will manage your mental health when it’s over.


Often, the holidays bring to the surface unresolved issues within families. If you are still having a hard time reconciling a relationship with a family member, therapy can help you better understand the underlying dynamics of the relationship and how to move forward in a way that protects you. If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to contact me. I offer a complimentary phone consultation to all potential clients. To schedule yours in a matter of seconds, please check here.

To learn more about how online counseling can help you better cope, please click here.


Jennifer Perera is a mom of two boys, a spouse and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has a private practice in Springfield, New Jersey and also sees clients throughout New Jersey via telehealth. Her passion is helping new moms and dads find their joy again in parenthood through individual and couples counseling. She also runs workshops for new parents, teaching them techniques and strategies to help them have a stronger relationship - built to thrive during the parenthood years. Jennifer specializes in working with parents during the prenatal and postpartum periods and those coping with grief or loss issues surrounding pregnancy.


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