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A Survival Guide for Difficult Family Visits

Take these six steps to survive anxious family visits.

If family visits have been stressful in the past, be thoughtful about managing them in the future. Follow these six steps.

  1. Don't leave it to a partner to plan for the visit or entertain your family. If your family visits you from out of town, take a day or two off work. If this is truly impossible, leaving work a few hours earlier on a particular day will signal to a family member that they matter. Go out of your way to be present during the visit.
  2. Connect one-on-one. Invite each family member to do something one-on-one with you, even if it's a 10-minute walk around the block with your mom, or a quick coffee at the local coffee shop with your brother, where you just banter about sports and the weather.
  3. Structure the length of visits. Obviously, this may require compromise. It's not reasonable, for example, to tell your parents who are flying in to see you from Japan that they can only stay for a long weekend. That said, stay in charge of the length of visits. If your family is like many, things can get too intense after about four or five days (if not four or five minutes). When it comes to family visits, longer is not necessarily better.
  4. Get space. Take breaks when you need them during visits, which can include everything from leaving the house for a brisk walk to planning a 3-day mini-trip with your partner within a 10-day visit to your parents. If visiting family has been extremely difficult for you or your partner, spring for a hotel and rental car. This can make the difference between a good-enough visit and a disaster, so these are dollars well spent. Your parents may be insulted you're not staying in the guest room, but they'll get over it in subsequent visits if you use your creativity to provide a tactful explanation.
  5. Anticipate the hot spots. You know your family well enough to know what will make you clutch and react. It may be your sister's comments on your son's "wild" behavior, your mother's relentless focus on your brother's screw-ups, or your father talking about his business schemes. Make a plan to manage the conversation and your own reactivity, so things don't escalate. Tell a friend or partner how he or she can help you.
  6. Set reasonable goals: Survival is a perfectly reasonable goal for a family visit if you come from a family where intensity and reactivity run high. Observing your family is another worthwhile goal. Getting through a visit without participating in any fights is another. If you feel up to the challenge, set the bar higher and experiment with new behaviors, such as refraining from advice-giving, asking your dad to take a walk with you, eliciting family stories, sharing a personal problem, or trying the 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments with your Mom.

Try to manage contact with family in mature and thoughtful ways. The challenge is to think ahead and plan, rather than react emotionally and absorb the stress yourself or take it out on an innocent party.