Tips for better family visits

Family of lions resting in the grass

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Family visits can be a hassle when you’re really busy. Add the tension caused by difficult personalities, and it can be a recipe for disaster. Strategic planning, assertiveness and a healthy dose of mindfulness can help you detach from family dramas.

Read the first part of this article and start seeing difficult family visits in a new light. Then continue below to learn some top tips that will help you enjoy them more.  

1 Arrange times that suit you

Firstly, make sure you set up visits at times or places that suit you if you can.

Be clear when organising visits that you can’t stay past a certain time. You don’t have to give explicit reasons – just say you’re very busy.

In addition, tell the other people going with you that you’ll be leaving at a certain time.

If family members demand to know what’s so important that you can’t stay, have a ready answer. Repeat variations on the theme: “I’d like to stay, but I’ve got a lot on at the moment.”

Even if everyone scoffs, remain calm and stick to your chosen phrases. Perhaps arrange a convenient time for another family visit in future.

Then change the subject. Ask relatives about their lives. Think up a range of questions to ask various people, so you’re well-prepared.

2 Have an escape plan

Another tip is to have an escape plan worked out beforehand.

Although you’ve let family know you can’t stay too long, they’ll often try to keep you from leaving anyway. Then you need to make positive moves to show you’re serious.

Ten minutes before you want to go, quietly warn others who came with you that you’ll all be leaving soon. Start collecting whatever you brought with you: dishes, bags, clothing and kids’ stuff.

Then say something to the whole group like, “We need to be making a move soon. I’ll just finish getting our stuff together.”

Quickly finish packing your things together, and don’t sit down again. If you do, you’ll get stuck. Stay standing while you wait for the others to get ready to go. If you can, slowly move nearer to the front door.

a) Expect protests from everyone

Expect that others will try to make you feel guilty for breaking up the gathering. Remain calm, and don’t react with embarrassment or annoyance.

Simply keep repeating things like, “I know, I know. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do, so we can’t stay. Don’t let us stop you enjoying yourselves, though. We’ll get out of your way now, so you can keep having a good time.”

Make a beeline for the front door as you smile and wave at everyone. Thank your hosts, call a last, “See you all later,” and scoot out the door.

b) Use visualisations

Visualise carrying out your escape plan several times. The more you imagine doing this, the easier it will be when leaving difficult family visits early.

Even if you’re not actually busy, you may want to leave if serious conflict is brewing. You or any children don’t have to sit through these dramas. Use the same excuses and strategies in those situations as well.

3 Relax and breathe

To relax yourself before and during your visit, practise breathing slowly. Notice any tension in your body, and let it go.

Be aware of wanting to complain about how terrible it’s going to be. Notice any desire to “badmouth” various family members.

Remind yourself you’re going to think differently about these gatherings. You’re going to remain calm, and accept family for who and what they are.

The previous article suggested you start to think of family members with greater compassion for problems they’ve had. Now’s the time to bring that to the forefront of your mind, instead of being critical.

Aim for a neutral state, that will let you react flexibly to what actually happens.

4 Refuse to be shocked or surprised

Before you visit, decide that you will refuse to be shocked or surprised by anyone’s behaviour.

You already know that some family members are difficult to deal with. They make a fuss every time you see them. And yet you get upset every time.

So make a pact with yourself. Accept the reality of the situation. Refuse to be angry or hurt the next time they act up during a family visit.

After all, what makes you think they’ll be any different? Why allow yourself to be taken unawares again? Expect they’ll provoke or tease. React as neutrally as you can.

5 Don’t rise to the bait

If you know you’ll be teased or criticised, decide beforehand that you won’t rise to the bait.

Instead, smile to yourself. Be interested to see how long individuals keep trying to make you to react.

Mentally say to yourself, “I knew he/she would try this. And I only walked in two minutes ago. That’s a record. I’ve heard it all before; it’s still the same old, same old. Not worth wasting my breath. Chill out, stay calm and focus on breathing slowly.”

Partly agree with them

You can even agree partly with some of what they say.

That can stop them in their tracks. Before they have a chance to start up again, ask them a specific question about what’s going on in their lives.

Change the focus to them, not you.

Say something like the following examples in a calm, level voice:

“Yes, I can see that must seem a bit strange/annoying/frustrating to you. Now, tell me, how’s that project/hobby of yours coming along?”

“I can see you’re worried about the whole situation. But I’m following my plan and it’s going quite well. By the way, what happened about your test results/medical condition/problem situation?”

“I suppose it does look stressful from your point of view. But it’s all under control. Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you how you fixed that issue with your neighbour/boss/friend.”

6 Work out which topics trigger trouble

Again, do a bit of thinking beforehand about which topics trigger trouble.

Every family also has certain topics that set off disagreements. Money, politics and religion are generally good bets. And there are plenty more hot topics to fight over during family visits.

Know beforehand which topics tend to trigger your family into dramas. That puts you at an advantage. Make a decision before you go, that you’ll keep out of these discussions.

7 Resist the temptation

Of course, it’s tempting to jump into arguments and set everyone straight. But think carefully.

Does anyone ever really listen to what other people say? Does anyone ever change their mind? Do these issues ever get sorted out?

Or do they always end up in hurt feelings and bad tempers?

Once you realise these issues never get solved during family visits, you can relax. It’s not your job to educate your family, or change their minds.

Yes, ideally they’d be open to new information. But that’s more likely to happen in calm, one-to-one situations.

8 Visualise detaching from arguments

So ahead of time, visualise yourself detaching from arguments.

When you’re alone, imagine a typical family argument is about to break out. Imagine you’ve chosen to sit where you’re not really in the centre of things. This is when your mindfulness skills can come in handy. 

a) Use mindfulness

Mindfully notice that you’re feeling tense as you imagine people start to raise their voices. Notice your desire to jump into the fray with your own comments.

Remind yourself of your decision not to say anything. Visualise yourself breathing slowly.

Breathe out so slowly that your lungs empty completely. Then take a long, slow breath in, and keep repeating the cycle.

Visualise yourself sitting back in your chair, while the others argue. Feel yourself relaxing your body, and giving yourself permission to let the fight drop. Tell yourself there’s nothing to be gained by getting involved.

b) Shift your attention

Then shift your attention. Imagine you can let the angry voices recede into the background. Don’t listen to every word they’re saying. Instead, focus on breathing slowly and steadily.

Imagine focussing your attention on your surroundings, instead of speaking.

Watch the kids playing on the floor, pick up a magazine and leaf through it, or check your phone. You could even quietly leave the room, and slip back in when things have settled down.

If someone asks you why you’re so quiet, shrug and say, “What’s the point. We’ve gone over this for ages and never got anywhere yet.”

Then imagine you change the subject.

Tailor this visualisation to your particular circumstances and family dynamics. Then do it several times before each family visit. 

The more you practice, the more easily you’ll be able to detach from family dramas in reality. Of course, at times it will still be difficult. But persist in using these tips, even if they don’t seem to be working to start with. 

9 Focus on your well-being

Eventually, you’ll notice a shift in the way you cope with difficult family visits. You’ll feel calmer and less churned up at the behaviour of others.

Of course, it’s tricky changing your behaviour. Others will notice and comment. Let these comments pass by with a smile.

Over time, you’ll find it easier and easier to detach from the unpleasant parts of family gatherings. You’ll find yourself longing less for validation from others. Instead, you’ll be more confident in yourself and what you’re doing.

Take the time to learn to breathe slowly and steadily. Learn the power of visualising how you want to be – before you go into tough situations.

All these skills can be used whenever you need them. All you have to do is be willing to practise them.

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