Keep Cool When Family Gatherings Get Heated

5 min read  |  June 28, 2018  | 

Every family has at least one: a relative who sows discord, an uncle who drinks too much, or a sister who brags obnoxiously.

And summer, the season of reunions, vacations, and weddings, is often the time when they all come together. While such family gatherings can forge new connections or strengthen old ones, motley personalities and political beliefs also increase the risk of conflict.

“It’s always great to get everyone together,” says Dr. Anthony Castro, a licensed clinical psychologist with the University of Miami Health System. “It can be a lot of fun, but it also poses certain challenges, and depending on family history, these can be at different levels of severity.”

In short, some relatives tend to get on our nerves, often more than strangers. They know how to push our buttons and have been doing so for years. So friction tends to worsen when we’re spending lots of time together, whether for several hours or a few days.

Reasons for conflict can vary, but I’ve found that in my family, at least, politics tends to be a minefield. Years ago, for example, I was at a family wedding in the northeast when two cousins at the next table over, reunited for the occasion, got into a shouting match over the president’s foreign policy. This surprised no one since they’re at opposite poles of the political spectrum.

Resentments and expectations

Even the most pleasant situations can be stressful. During my annual summer family reunion, it’s not unusual for my kids to argue about where we should go for dinner. Conscientious adults suddenly turn into children, turning the clock back to past hurts, imagined or otherwise. “The majority of disagreements are really not about the specific current situation,” Castro explains. “They’re about the past, about some other problem, which has built over time.”

Old jealousies and past slights have a way of resurfacing at the oddest times. When we return home or spend time with our siblings and other relatives, we revert to old roles. Suddenly, we come face to face with feelings that we may have tucked away in our everyday adult world. We remember that Grandpa always favored Johnny. That Maria always got the most attention. That Cousin Gertrude rarely disciplined her unruly children.

What can you do? Accept the disagreements and conflict. “Being part of a family,” Castro says, “is to accept and recognize that these exist.”

No family fits a perfect mold, regardless of how much we fantasize. In fact, the discrepancy between anticipation and reality can lead to problems — and disappointment.

“So much of the conflict in these situations arises from our own feelings of perfection,” Castro adds. “We want things to go well, we want everyone to get along, but these expectation just make everything more stressful. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect for you to have a good time.”

In other words, focus on the positive — the coming together of relatives you do like — instead of nitpicking everything that goes wrong. “We take on a lot of responsibility that really doesn’t belong to us when we try to control or change people,” Castro says.

Peacekeeping tips

In addition to managing expectations, Castro has other suggestions for a successful summer family event, one that creates memories while keeping strife to a minimum:

  • Set general rules to minimize conflict. Inform those who attend that certain topics are off the table. (Think politics, religion, money, and past grievances.). Nevertheless, “recognize that sometimes disagreements still happen,” Castro says. “We often jump in and try to find ways to resolve them, but it’s not our responsibility.”
  • Work with your family to facilitate a pleasant experience for all by listening and considering some of their ideas. Avoid potential blow-ups by limiting close physical contact between those who don’t get along. While this may be difficult in a several-day event, you can try to group people in the best way possible by using seating arrangements. Trying to do more will only stress you out. “Take the position that everyone is an adult, and thus responsible for their own behavior,” Castro says.
  • Accept your relatives for who they are. This includes the limelight hogger, the attention seeker, the martyr, the golden child. “People are different and we should accept those differences, whether they’re our relatives or our friends. If we’re focused on the things we don’t like, it’s tough to see anything else. Allow yourself to see some of the good even in those we don’t necessarily agree with.”
  • Factoring in downtime for yourself and your family can help maintain a relaxed and enjoyable experience. Too much togetherness can be grating. If you have young children, keep them to their schedules, naps included, as much as possible. Have food and cold drinks handy. Hunger can make anyone irritable
  • Nurture your sense of humor. When bothered by a situation, instead of blowing up, look at it differently.
  • “This is certainly not the time to request apologies or remind others how upset you are for previous slights. If any of these is a goal, you are probably better of respectfully declining the invitation,” he says.

“If we focus on the things we don’t like,” Castro says, “we then don’t focus on the good things. Sure, relatives can be frustrating, but you have to remember why you’re there. What’s your goal?

“To bond with family. To enjoy yourself. It’s a matter of tailoring your approach.”

Ana Veciana author

Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Contributor

Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami HeraldThe Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.

Tags: Dr. Anthony Castro, family activities, mental health, stress

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