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Coping With Families And The Elephant In The Room

Often we bring presents to family gatherings, like the elephant in the room. This can lead to conflict or help avoid conflict. What strategies can help to cope well with family gatherings?

Often we bring presents to family gatherings, like the elephant in the room. This can lead to conflict or help avoid conflict. What strategies can help to cope well with family gatherings?

Perhaps it is you, perhaps it is someone else. But someone will bring a bag of stuff, which may make it difficult to relax at family gatherings.

There may be

The elephant in the room:an obvious issue or problem no one wants to discuss.

The three wise monkeys: hearing no evil, seeing no evil, speaking no evil, when we may choose to look the other way and feign ignorance of something.

The ostrich: when we may bury our head in the sand trying to ignore obvious signs of danger or conflict.

You may recognise some of these. Indeed, you may be able to think of more presents just like these. Some present you may receive, others which you may have already prepared to give to others.

Sometimes, choosing to ignore the obvious is a necessary strategy to help keep the peace at family gatherings; at other times this may lead to conflict.

Avoiding the obvious and the truth can be ok, especially if it is your choosing.

However, when others pretend that something (or someone), which matters to us, does not exist, then we may experience a whole range of emotional responses, like anger, resentment, anxiety, feeling isolated and more.

Here are some general suggestions for coping strategies, which you may want to tailor to your own circumstances:

Be Clear

Ahead of difficult family gatherings get clarity in your own mind about the sorts of issues that might be problematic for you and others. Indeed, be clear who may be a problem for you, and for whom you may be a problem - and why.

Make a Choice

Decide how you want to approach the gathering, which topics you want to talk about, or not, or how much, or how little. Decide how you want to approach certain individuals and how you may respond to the ways in which they may treat you.

Get an Ally

If possible, share your plan with another, who can back you up, and understands your reasoning behind your chosen strategies.

Prepare an Exit Plan

Sometimes at family gatherings we may need temporary time out, or we may need to cut the visit short altogether. Think ahead of how you might want to get yourself out of potentially tricky and difficult situations.

What is the worst that can happen?

Instead of fuelling irrational anxiety, thinking about the worst that may happen, and what we might do about it, can be strangely reassuring - because we are prepared.

Get in a helpful frame of mind

If a forthcoming family gathering may be stressful, then ensure you cut down on other stress. Prioritise commitments, try and keep your physical and emotional batteries charged. Try and relax. Have enough rest, keep hydrated and keep an eye on your diet. Comfort eating, comfort drinking, comfort smoking and more is understandable, but has a limited shelf life and creates more problems than solutions.

Stay reassured

You have made a plan. That is a fact. Try and feel reassured by the choices you make. The following exercises or rituals can help reassure you. Depending on your preferences, you may feel comfortable with the following suggestions. If not, then why not have an open mind?

  • Breathing exercises to help you stay calm
  • Online you will find a wide range of suggestion. Here is one example

  • Visualisation exercise to help you stay focused and grounded
  • Again you will find a lot of material online. But in a nutshell: In what kind of place do you feel calm? What kind of scenery makes you feel energised? For example, by a river, on a meadow, in the mountains? Select your space and in your mind go there from time to time, when you rest or walk or wherever you can. Get used to what it is like. When you are in situations of stress and conflict, taking yourself to that place, even very briefly, can help you re-focus on what matters and can help you avoid being sucked into a quarrel you would like to avoid.

  • Carry a tolken
  • Put something in your bag or pocket that symbolises your strategy for managing the family gathering. It may be a word or sentence written on a piece of paper; an item, a piece of clothing or jewellery that can help remind yourself.

    Thinking ahead and being prepared can be reassuring and empowering, even if we choose an elephant as an ally in the room during difficult family gatherings.

    Karin Sieger is a psychotherapist and writer. She posts regularly on her blog For more information visit