Holiday gatherings with family can be fraught with frustration, hurt, and old habits–right alongside the pumpkin pie. Here, a few ideas to help you cook up a happier, freer Thanksgiving and beyond.

  1. Understand most of us arrive at family gatherings hungry–for more than green-bean casserole. Before you arrive, do a self-assessment: Where am I at right now? (Tired. Stressed. Giddy with expectation. Hopeful. Guarded. Sensitive.) What do I want/hope for? This helps you be aware of your expectations, rather than them subtly manipulating your actions–and others. It’s okay to arrive with desires. It’s when those desires become demands–to which we feel entitled–that we get into trouble.
  2. You’re not the only one arriving with expectations. So many of the family members you’ll encounter may have soul-holes of their own they crave to have filled: for significance. Approval. Affection. Comfort. Relaxation. Power. Control. Security. As a general rule, “don’t feed the idols”; don’t enable destructive patterns. You can be kind without perpetuating dysfunctional behavior patterns (like manipulation).
  3. If you have trouble setting boundaries, here are some thoughts for you. 
  4. Go in proactive rather than reactive. When my family arrived in Uganda, we arrived with a mission: to love well; to help people see what Jesus looked like. I’m suggesting you enter your family gathering with a similar mindset. Rather than focus on what you wish to get, pray about your time together, and for each person there. Ask God to give you eyes that see; ears that hear. Ask, “Lord, what do you want to do here? How can I love people well and show them you?” Go in as givers rather than takers.
  5. Realize the power of old patterns. Family has a remarkable capacity to suck us (ahem, me) back into old, often unhealthy patterns of relating and responding to people. Walk in the door and boom–you’re 16 again, right? I try to get my heart satisfied in God first so that I don’t seek for family to feed old appetites (for me, approval, affirmation, security). With those old patterns, one prayer I like is from Psalm 25:15: My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He will pluck my feet out of the net. Remind yourself of common “triggers” for your dysfunctional behavior, and be ready for them. You might even prepare what you’ll say or do in place of your old pattern.
  6. This may sound melodramatic, but for many of you entering more-than-awkward–as in, unhealthy–situations, meditate on verses like Ephesians 6:10-20 (putting on the armor of God) and 2 Peter 1:3-4. Pray
    • for God’s power to return a blessing in the face of every insult (1 Peter 3:9)
    • to speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15)
    • to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19)
    • to only use words that build up, give grace, and are right for the occasion (Ephesians 4:29)
  7. Build mental breaks into your schedule. If you’re an introvert overwhelmed by crowds, consider taking a walk with one or two people. If a certain dynamic drives you crazy, take a break to the store, get something out of the car (including a deep breath and your peace of mind!), or duck into your room for a few minutes to speak truth to yourself.
  8. Often our extended families simply hold different values than we do. Pick your battles (you might even do it in advance). Perhaps you’ll decide, One day of video games will not kill my kids, but I’m going to gently ask my mom ahead of time not to bring up my daughter’s weight. When you feel the need to confront, a general rule: Keep it as private as possible for as long as possible–and use your words to give grace rather than shame to gain control or revenge (I’m trying to be strict with myself, using Ephesians 4:29 rule as a guide).
  9. Have preemptive conversations with kids about their behavior and the differing standards of relatives. Troubleshoot with them about how to respond and behave. This post can give you some ideas to steer everyone toward discernment rather than being judgmental.
  10. Are expectations for this relationship, as author Peter Scazzero writes,*
    • Conscious?
    • Realistic?
    • Spoken?
    • Agreed upon?

If not, there’s a chance you’re expecting someone to possess, well, relational ESP: Please read my mind. You may need to extend some grace over what you want that isn’t happening. Honestly, sometimes it means that I rewrite my expectations for the relationship based on what this person is able to give, rather than just what I wanted. Too often, my expectations steal my joy; my gratitude for what is.

11. Get rest. Late-night games and conversations can be one of the best parts of your time together. But later on in the week, they can also contribute to you offering the stressed version of yourself. (You’re already living out of a bag, had that “fun” roadtrip here, don’t have your time alone, and are washing 47 people’s dishes during the day, right?) Take breaks to refuel so when conflict arises, you’ve got margin to respond in a way that heals rather than destroys.

12. The condensed version of your options in conflict: Get help, talk it out, or overlook. (As for that last one, you can “overlook” if you can truly forgive and desire to bless someone and pursue the relationship rather than punish them. Otherwise, it can fall more in the “denial” category.) Give yourself space to not react emotionally and process what you really think. Then talk it out, or get help (i.e. from someone who’s wise–not to gossip or garner support for your position).


How do you prepare yourself for healthier family interactions over the holidays?


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