Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Family Dynamics

4 Tips to Get Through Difficult Family Meals

With a little preparation, you can cope with even the most toxic family members!

Key points

  • Expect the expected with predictable family members who cross boundaries.
  • Decide coping mechanisms in advance.
  • Prepare support systems for during and after tense family meals.

For many, getting together with the family brings out old dynamics, issues, wounds, and conversations that can feel emotionally exhausting. Here are some tips for maintaining your emotional well-being if you’re anticipating a difficult time with family.

  1. If it happened before, expect it now. If your family has a history of bringing up politics, commenting on your weight, noticing whether you’re single or paired off, or comparing your job status to your cousin, expect it to happen this year too. Sometimes we get our hopes up that this time, things will be different. This time, everybody will get along and nobody will comment on an obviously difficult topic. But they probably will. Knowing this and accepting this at the outset can prevent you from feeling blindsided and hurt that you were let down once again.
  2. Prepare your responses to expected issues. Maybe you’ll good-naturedly say that yes, you did take a new job and you love it and it fulfills you. Maybe you’ll set a boundary and say, “this is kind of a divisive subject, would it be okay if we changed the subject and talked about this after dinner?” Maybe you’ll prepare to take a three-minute bathroom break to regroup if things start to feel uncomfortable. Maybe you’ll approach a loved one before the meal starts and say something like, “I noticed that in the past, you’ve asked about my relationship status at the dinner table and that it becomes a topic of conversation. I know it’s coming from a loving place but I’d prefer to discuss other things this year.” Maybe you’ll accept things as they are and let them happen, taking deep breaths as you go. Maybe there’s a gathering that this year, you’ll only attend for an hour instead of four hours to preserve your own emotional health. Whatever it is, have a plan. Having a plan will help you feel more in control of the day.
  3. Imagine you are a researcher. Instead of focusing on what people are saying, notice the way the family operates, as if looking in from the outside. "Oh boy, Aunt Mary is about to start talking about Trump. She likes to initiate controversial discussions. Which means cousin Alice is going to start yelling back. And then grandma is going to try to keep the peace (that’s what she always does) by talking about how tasty the dinner is! They’re going to look to me for my opinion any second now. Yup! There it is." Noticing how the conversations unfold instead of focusing solely on the content of the conversations can help you start to see what role you want to play in the dynamic rather than what you want to say on a specific topic. You may choose to play your expected role, or you may choose to do something different. But noticing the big picture can help you make a choice about what you're going to do. This way of looking at things can take some practice but it’s a worthwhile one to cultivate.
  4. Have a buddy: Tell a friend that you may need to text them during the event to keep you grounded. Let your partner know that you might need a hand squeeze during the meal. Schedule a coffee date with a close friend that you can debrief with afterwards. This will help you feel less alone when things feel overwhelming or frustrating. It will also give you something to look forward to after the day.

With a little bit of preparation, tricky family dynamics can go relatively smoothly.

More from Sarah Epstein LMFT
More from Psychology Today