Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Surviving the ‘Cast of Characters’ at Your Family Reunion

503545381_318f9bd7b1_z(1)Photo by Flickr user freeparking (Creative Commons License)

When it comes to family reunions, there seems to be two types of people: those who spend hours organizing, coordinating and planning them and those who spend hours organizing, coordinating and planning how to avoid them. As ubiquitous as trips to the beach and popsicles from the ice cream truck, the family reunion is a prominent summer event for many. For children, this is an opportunity to run around with long-lost cousins and overindulge in hot dogs and sundaes when their parents are otherwise preoccupied. For adults, though, the landscape becomes far more complex with an intermingling of emotions and expectations. If the annual family reunion Evite leaves you gritting your teeth and searching for an excuse to be out of town, you are not alone.

Like a play with its cast of characters, each family reunion comes with its roster of personalities. With a little strategy and pre-planning, you can deal with these characters, even the most difficult of relatives, with aplomb. And, have some fun along the way.

Needling Aunt Nelly
There is at least one at every family reunion. She finds your soft spot and probes deeper. Whether she asks about your recent divorce or a child that has been struggling, Needling Aunt Nelly puts you on the defensive. First, if something has happened in your life since the last family reunion that people may be inappropriately nosey about, decide what your limits are ahead of time so you are not caught off guard. Struggled through a nasty divorce? Had a child drop out of college? These things happen, but you do not have to go into detail about them, even with relatives. Responding with “You know, that was a rough time and I’d really not rather rehash it,” is perfectly acceptable. Following it up with a diversionary tactic, “How have you been?” or even, “Have you tried this potato salad?” can move the topic along.

Political Uncle Peter
Politics and religion are often two topics best avoided at family reunions. That said, it wouldn’t be a reunion without a few political fireworks going off. If Political Uncle Peter brings up politics, which he will as he has done so at every family reunion for the past twenty years with the primary objective of ruffling feathers, acceptance is often the best route here. Engaging will likely lead to escalation of the argument and it will change no one’s long-held beliefs. Smile, give a little laugh and concede, “You know, Uncle Peter, we’ll never see eye-to-eye on this. How about those Seahawks?”

Gossiping Cousin Grace
Gossiping Cousin Grace seems to be at every family reunion. She is happy to spill the dirt on other family members, particularly the ones who didn’t make it to the event. You will rarely regret taking the high road. Listen politely if you must, but avoid feeding into her petty gossip.

Perfect Cousin Pauline
Perfect Cousin Pauline doesn’t even have to be present to rain on your family reunion. She has two children on the honor role, a doting husband and a successful career. Her dog just graduated at the top of its obedience class. Your aunt will brag about her and you will find yourself feeling resentful and insufficient. Don’t succumb to this. Remember that what appears idyllic on the outside is often far from perfect underneath. Your life has taken a different path than hers. That is fine. When the topic of Pauline and her Rhodes Scholar children arise, smile, offer a supportive remark, and move on.

Guilt-Tripping Aunt Gail
It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. Why don’t you call?” Recognize that this is how Guilt-Tripping Aunt Gail is trying to show her affection for you. Focus on the now, “I know, it’s been forever. How are you doing?” Be attentive and engaged. Ten minutes of thoughtful conversation can do a great deal to allay your relative’s sense of being ignored. If you can, make a mental note to call a week after the reunion for a quick check-in.

Feuding Sister Fran
If you have a specific family member, like Feuding Sister Fran, with whom you have an ongoing disagreement, the reunion is not the place to hash things out. If possible, address the issue before hand. Make a call, have lunch, and try to bury the hatchet. This may feel hard, or even impossible, but keep in mind that an apology, even if it does not feel entirely warranted or justified, can make a huge difference going forward. And, it doesn’t cost you more than a little stomach acid.

Rambunctious Nephew Ryan
There will be kids at the family reunion who behave badly. Restless from hours spent in the car travelling, fueled by too many sodas, and excited by the playing cousins they haven’t seen in a year, children are rarely on their best behavior. Unless you’re interested in starting the next family feud, avoid remonstrating Rambunctious Nephew Ryan. If the activity is dangerous, clearly something should be said. However, if it is more on the spectrum of annoying, work on damage control. Send the kids with the Nerf guns away from the food, and make sure the footballs aren’t being thrown in such a way that they land in grandma’s lap.

Lovely Great Aunt Lucy
Come on, not all your relatives are difficult. Even in the most challenging families, there are almost certainly a few people, like Lovely Great Aunt Lucy, who you are genuinely happy to see and with whom you would like to spend more time. Make them the focus and take the opportunity to catch up.

Family reunion season is underway. Even for those of us who feel a certain degree of trepidation at this annual undertaking, a thoughtul approach to the more challenging relatives can ease your angst and free you up to spend time with the family members you do enjoy.

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