These happen in almost every family over the holidays - the larger the family, the more likely they are to happen.
Someone says or does something that is later (or immediately) regretted;
Someone gets (inadvertently) offended;
Someone feels left out, ignored, dissed, unloved, less favored, underappreciated;
Someone feels overworked and stressed out; and
Politics comes up.
Are there ways to avoid it? In a word, no! Some amount of family miscommunication is common but there may be ways to reduce the likelihood that, across and within generations, trouble will brew. So what to do about a family get together?
1. Be aware that old patterns of behavior often return when family members gather at someone’s house. The adult child (college student or older) and parent may fall into tried and true routines that are a far cry from the adult child’s competence in the world outside of the family realm. The 21, 31, or 41-year-old who is (pick one): a. working at Starbucks; b. running a business; c. managing an acapella group; d. arguing cases in court; d. counseling individuals; e. providing health care; or f. volunteering each week in their place of worship gets treated as if he or she is still 14 and unable to tie shoes. That same adult child may also receive “out of sync” treatment from a younger or older sibling who wants to return to old roles that are no longer extant.
What to do about it? Be your new self, not your old self. If you are your old self you are continuing a cycle of behavior that you may not wish to continue. Whether you directly address this treatment with the other family member will depend on the context and if the holidays are the best time to talk. If there is too much going on at the time, wait until January. Rome was not built that quickly and adult relationships take time to titrate.
2. Set expectations appropriately. Holidays have huge buildups. Normal Rockwell made his career on idealized versions of the family. Some families achieve the ideal but most do not. Figure out what you want to happen. If you have other family members traveling with you (a partner or children, for example) talk to them so expectations are set for your team.
4. Unless they can be discussed without a lot of rancor, avoid political topics. Remember that Uncle Henry has always been a Democrat or a Republican or a libertarian. You are unlikely over turkey to convince him to change party affiliation.
5. Parents whose children have gone away and are returning from college need to negotiate with them and college students who are returning home to their parents’ home need to negotiate with them. First-year college students, in particular, are balancing new independence where they set their own schedule and are now returning to the fold for a few days or a few weeks. Who are they? Are they the child who was living in his parent’s home five months ago and subject to those rules or are they the young adult who is experimenting with a new self-image? Both sides should discuss expectations and be willing to bend a little.
6. Balance time with family and friends. Returning home if a while away? Seeing old friends may be important. Keeping in touch with friends that are also seeing their families may be important too. The trick is to balance time with family with time with friends in situ and time with friends in other cities.
7. Let it go when possible. By lowering expectations, it will be easier to let things slide a bit. Take a breath and try and focus on what is working for you and your family.