Monday, September 15, 2014

Parenting Pointers: Keep It Cool When Family Gatherings Get Heated

Anytime we get together with extended family, there's the potential for stress, tension and arguments. What can you do?

How we talk to each other when dealing with difficult family situations can challenge or add to our relationships. The first thing is to realize that each of us has control over how we react when we or other family members start to get upset.

This begins with understanding that our language and our past experiences shape how we experience the world. What gives you your experience of life or evokes your emotions are not the events in life themselves, but the interpretation your mind attaches to those events, automatically and so fast that you don’t even notice it. For instance, if you grew up in a household where you heard constant criticism, you might find that you often misinterpret things other people tell you as critical even when they are not meant to be. By becoming aware of these patterns, we can change how we respond. And by responding in love, we can help shift the dynamic of our family get-togethers.

So how can we change our way of listening so that we genuinely hear what others are telling us and respond in a loving way, rather than stoking a heated argument? Here are some steps that can help keep the heat and fireworks at a safe distance this summer:

Realize It's Not Personal. You may say, “What do you mean it isn't personal? What's more personal than criticism from family members?” The fact is, we almost all experience added stress when we get together with extended family, no matter what the occasion. If you understand that everyone goes through trying times with family, it will help you to take the actions you can to help get things back to a positive footing.

Get the Facts: There is always a reason why someone is upset. No matter what the issue is, we have found it almost always boils down to one of three things:
  1. An undelivered communication.
  2. A thwarted intention, or
  3. An unfulfilled expectation.

Finding out exactly what you or someone else is upset about is the first step in diffusing it. Ask yourself, “What is behind this upset? What isn't getting said?” If someone else in your family is getting upset, pull them aside and give them a chance to talk about what they are feeling. The most important thing is to make sure they get listened to. If you are the one who is upset, take a time out and express your feelings to someone who you know is a good listener. 

Act Instead of React: This means looking at things you can do proactively to lessen the chance that you will be the one who gets upset. For instance, practice turning expectations into requests. If you have an expectation that your kids be on time for Father's Day brunch, don't expect them to read your mind. Instead, call them up the day before and let them know by saying something like, “One of the things that is really important to me is that you be on time.” If you turn your expectations into requests, you will lessen the chance of feeling disappointed.

Finally, remember what is most important. Maybe the meal at your family gathering didn't turn out just the way you wanted. Maybe your spouse or kids forgot to bring something they were supposed to, or things didn't turn out exactly as you had planned. If things like that happen, just remember what is really important – being there and enjoying your time with your family.

About the Author: David Cunningham, M.Ed., is a communication expert and seminar leader for Landmark, a personal and professional growth, training and development company that's had more than 2.2 million people use its programs to cause breakthroughs in their personal lives as well as in their communities, generating more than 100,000 community projects around the world. In The Landmark Forum, Landmark's flagship program, people cause breakthroughs in their performance, communication, relationships and overall satisfaction in life. For more information, please visit

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