5 Strategies to Enjoy Family Gatherings

Evelyne L. Thomas
December 1, 2023
min read

5 Strategies to Enjoy Family Gatherings

Family Gatherings are a cherished tradition that bring loved ones together, creating opportunities for bonding and shared memories. However, I can imagine that you all have experienced your own family gatherings at one time or another, falling short of your expectations, leading to frustration and strained communication.


This blog explores 5 simple strategies to help you prepare and ensure that your next family celebration yields beautiful memories.  


The Expectation Dilemma

Regardless of our faith or culture, for many of us, the end of year is traditionally synonymous with getting together with our loved ones. For Western cultures, Thanksgiving and Christmas are big celebrations. For my clients in the Middle East, Eid and Diwali as well as weddings are also perfect opportunities to gather family members.

It’s natural to have expectations for family gatherings. We anticipate joyous moments, heartfelt conversations, and a sense of unity. Grown-up children who are away at University or College come back home, often for the first time in a few months.  Similarly, parents come and visit, or you might be going back to your country to spend time with them.


So how can such beautiful opportunities to be ‘perfect times together’ quickly turn into a nightmare and a ‘never to be repeated’ experience?


When reality doesn’t align with expectations, disappointment can set in. It might be unresolved conflicts or differing opinions.


The passing of time also changes family dynamics. Grown-up children who barely left 3 months ago have already adjusted to a more independent life at university or college. Their world has expanded, their wings have grown, and we can’t expect the same from them.  I remember how difficult it was to readjust to my gone-to-university children’s presence in the house when they first came back on holiday. It is such a precious time, we want to make the most of it, yet it is so difficult not to fall back into children/parent patterns of interaction and expectation.


As for our own parents, often living literally thousands of miles away from them, our experience of day-to-day life can be different. Again, unmet expectations can hinder communication and dampen the spirit of togetherness.

The Root Cause of Expectations


Our yearnings for happiness, love, acceptance, closeness, intimacy, and connection are real. These emotional connections are essential to our survival as human beings.


If, as children these emotional needs were met, then we are more likely to have built sufficient self-esteem to know that we are loved and accepted. It means that as adults, today, we are more comfortable at building intimate and emotional connections, and we rely less on others to meet those needs.


If, however these universal emotional needs were not met in our childhood, as adults today, we often fear being rejected, and not mattering to the people we love. We are sensitive to others’ opinion of us, and we have feelings of hurt, sadness, and loneliness that are often expressed in criticism, frustration, blame and anger.


In order words, we tend to expect others to make us feel loved.

How do you know if you have unmet emotional needs?

Close your eyes for a moment and take yourself back to a time when you were much younger. It could be when you were 8 or 9 years old or it could be later, when you were a teenager. Now try to pick specific situations and ask yourself:

·       How did I get disappointed?

·       What did I want to happen?

·       Was the situation unfair?

·       Did I feel unappreciated? Rejected? Misunderstood?

·       What did I want the other person to do or say?

·       Today, what do I still want this person to do or say?


When we realise that most of our expectations today are based on unmet emotional needs in the past, we can work out ways to start fulling these needs now as an adult. This helps lower our expectations of others.


Effective Communication is the Key.

Now that we have looked at the nature of our expectations, let’s reflect on how we communicate our needs for emotional connection.


How we communicate our needs for love and connection will affect our relationships. We have all learnt tools to keep us safe. When our brain (the amygdala) detects dangers in our everyday life, it triggers our freeze/fight/flight response and before we have time to realise what is happening, we are either criticising and defending ourselves (fight response) or we are running away for shelter and avoid difficult conversations (flight response). Such autonomic responses trigger other people’s emotions who then respond with their own defence mechanism.


The family gathering has barely started, and you are already in a negative cycle of interaction.

 5 Strategies to Lower Expectations & Communicate Safely


1. Practice Acceptance

Embrace the reality that no family is perfect. Each member brings not only their own expectations, but also their own experiences of being loved and accepted. Everyone brings their own personality. It can be hard, as a parent, to accept that our children have grown up and they are their own personality that we can no longer influence. Acceptance allows you to approach interactions with an open mind, fostering understanding and empathy.


2. Set Realistic Expectations

You might be picturing an idealised version of the gathering. Put this picture aside, and instead set realistic expectations. Understand that there may be differences in opinions, and not every moment will be picture-perfect. This shift in mindset can help reduce disappointment and enhance appreciation for the positive aspects of the gathering.


3. Focus on Connection, not Perfection

It would be tempting to aim for flawless interactions. But also, highly unrealistic. Instead try prioritising the quality of connections. Engage on meaningful conversations and focus on building positive memories. Shifting the emphasis from perfection to connection can create a more relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere.


4. Communicate Openly

Encourage open communication within the family. If there are specific concerns or expectations, express them calmly and respectfully. This proactive approach can prevent misunderstandings and create an environment where everyone feels heard and understood.

5. Be Mindful of Triggers

Understand your own triggers and those of your family members. Avoid sensitive topics that may lead to conflicts (they can wait for a more auspicious time) and focus on subjects that foster positive conversations. Being mindful of potential triggers can help maintain a harmonious atmosphere.


Now you are all set to prepare for your next opportunity to strengthen bonds and create lasting memories with your family members. By managing expectations and adopting a more flexible and understanding mindset, we can navigate these gatherings with grace and appreciation. Let’s keep in mind that the beauty of family lies in its imperfections, and by fostering open communication and realistic expectations, we can make the most of these precious moments together.

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