Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Have Family Gatherings with Less Stress and More Joy

As you start spending time with family again, these tools can help.

Key points

  • Family gatherings can stir up old issues and bring on new ones.
  • Expectations, which can take many different forms, may impact feelings about gatherings.
  • To change the impact of unmet expectations, know what is likely to happen and what to do to prepare.

Whatever is going on with COVID-19, it seems that many families are making plans to spend time together this fall and winter. Birthday parties, weddings, and Sunday dinners put off for 18 months are happening at last. And, of course, Thanksgiving, Hanukah, and Christmas are not that far away.

Are you excited about seeing family? Are you happy about getting back to a more normal life? Or are you worried about picking up where you left, rehashing old, familiar arguments, and struggling with a lifetime of dysfunctional interactions – not to mention unpleasant discussions about masks, vaccines, and whether break-through cases of COVID are reality?

89666023 Tom Want
Source: 123RF Image ID:89666023 Tom Want

While you can’t prevent heated political discussions, make restless children calm down, stop your mother from drinking too much, or turn your father-in-law into a more compassionate human being, you can do something to keep the evening or weekend from becoming a personal tragedy. The keyword here is expectation.

Neuroscientists have recently found evidence that what we expect can influence how we behave and how we behave can impact what happens.

Expectations take on many different forms.

One set of expectations goes along the lines described by Alice*, who told me she wanted her children to have a different relationship with her parents than with her grandparents. “I want them to have a special connection with their Granny and Gramps,” she said. “I didn’t have that, and I always longed for it.” But such hopes aren’t always fulfilled, often because they don’t consider the complexity of all of our relationships.

In her book Nashville, Anna Quindlen offered one of the wisest, funniest, and gentlest examples of this I’ve ever read. Speaking about becoming a grandmother, she softly poked fun at herself for her expectations that her grown son will continue to be her little boy, her daughter-in-law will become her little girl, and she will be the center of her grandson’s universe. In a gentle, humorous poke at grandparents’ belief that we know everything there is to know about child-rearing and that we expect our grown children to accept our knowledge unquestioningly, Quindlen wrote that reality is quite different, and,

Care must be taken, boundaries respected. I’m more interested in fitting into our grandson’s routine than in busting him out of it, in having him be not a wedge but yet another bridge between his parents and me.

And then in one of the most honest admissions from a parent or a grandparent, she said, “I don’t want to tell my son and his wife what to do; I’m not sure I know.”

Family and couples’ therapists have long known that expectations can significantly color any relational interaction. Often experienced as longings but framed as demands, these complicated desires can precisely create the kind of wedge Quindlen hoped to avoid. Parents want their grown children to like them better than their partners’ parents and prove it by coming to their home for holiday celebrations. In-laws wish to be folded in and loved (immediately) like family members. A daughter wants her mother to behave like her mother-in-law, or conversely, she wants her mother-in-law to act like her mother. Or like she wishes her mother had acted.

These desires can lead to disappointment, anger, and resentment when not met. But expectations can also become self-fulfilling prophecies, according to the researchers on the neuroscience of expectation.

For example, Beatrice* constantly hopes that the next family dinner will be the wonderful, joyous gathering depicted in some of her favorite tv shows. But what she gets is a form of Real Housewives when her mother drinks too much, her father and brother disappear to watch football, and her sister-in-law makes a snide comment about her sweater being “just a little too snug for your body shape.” She comes back from these experiences with the comment, “I should have known. They just aren’t going to change.”

While there may be truth to her words, there’s also the possibility that her expectations added to the difficulty. As we look at these expectations, Beatrice realizes that she “knew” that her mother would get drunk and her sister-in-law would say something nasty and that her father and brother would once again leave her alone to deal with these two difficult women on her own. She expected it, and she was waiting for it to happen.

What she hadn’t thought about, however, was that if she turned expectation into preparation, she could behave differently. She might have prepared to go to watch football with the guys, for instance. “But I don’t like football,” she said when I made that suggestion. I asked if she could play with the idea of doing something a little different next time, though. “Well, I could go sit with them and read, or I could bring my knitting and do that while I sit there. That would work. And it might even be relaxing!”

We have multiple layers of expectations, not all of which we put into clear words for ourselves. But if you can put your desires and expectations into phrases, allowing yourself to know what you anticipate might happen even if it’s not what you want to have happened, you can then take the next step and prepare for what you expect.

So for whatever family gathering might be in your near future, try thinking out these three steps:

  1. What are your desires?
  2. What do you anticipate will happen?
  3. What can you do to prepare for what will really happen?

Taking these three steps will likely help you enjoy the gathering, even if it doesn’t lead to you getting exactly what you long for. And maybe, as your expectations become more realistic, you will get more of what you are hoping for.

More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today