Tips for Dealing With Messy Family Holidays

written by Barb Howe
11 · 08 · 21

For grandparents whose families are affected by divorce, addiction, special needs, or dysfunctionality of any kind, holiday gatherings may look less like the Brady Bunch and more like the Adams Family. It might sometimes be tempting to ditch dinners with the kids in favor of a senior’s vacation package. Let’s face it, holiday get-togethers are complicated enough without adding layers of exes, in-laws, and unexpected friends of family members. 

Some people seem to live in a perpetual state of crisis, as if they are trying to assemble a puzzle with pieces that don’t belong together. While you cannot control how others behave, you can control how you respond. Instead of running away, try a more measured approach, especially when grandchildren are looking forward to special family celebrations.

As Christians, our calling is to demonstrate the love of Christ to those nearest to us. I find it helps to have a plan before dinner is in the oven or the clan is gathered at someone’s home. Invite Jesus to be Lord over your family gatherings. Ask for his grace to flow out from you. Anticipating how you will react to challenging family dynamics can help reduce the stress of bringing everyone together.

Here are tips to help make family gatherings more fun for everyone, whether you are the host or a guest:

AS A HOST – Expect the best, but prepare to be surprised.

Set expectations. 

A few weeks before a family gathering, communicate your plans with everyone on your invitation list. Let guests know the start and end time and ask if it works with other plans they may have. Adult children often have three or more invitations to holiday gatherings. Include your adult children, but realize they may not be able to attend, may arrive late, or may need to leave early. Be gracious.

Know what triggers family arguments. 

If verbal spats typically break out between the same two family members, take proactive steps to avoid confrontations. Seat people strategically at the dinner table to separate the ones most likely to get into arguments. If you’re fortunate enough to have a peacekeeper among the guests, seat them somewhere in between and, if possible, give that person a heads-up to the situation. 

An alternative solution is to not invite the troublemakers. Use your discretion and consider the family dynamics of this choice. Ask yourself if it will create more conflict or less if certain individuals are not present.

Stay flexible. 

Hopefully, you have family members who are dependable guests. Plan seating for them with ample elbow room, but set aside an extra place setting or two in case an unreliable one shows up unannounced. It’s a lot easier to pre plan an extra seating arrangement than ruin the atmosphere by scrambling to pull things together at the last minute. 

I find keeping the menu simple and expandable makes it easier to accommodate unexpected guests. Get the basic menu down, and allow guests to bring side dishes, appetizers, or dessert. An alternative to a formal dinner is to set out trays of finger food, charcuterie trays, or similar fare and allow guests to serve themselves in a more casual setting. Plus, this method eliminates the disruption of late arrivals.

Understand that sometimes an adult family member’s plans are changed at the last minute.  Consider that they might be dealing with unreliable people who are disrupting their plans. This leads to the next suggestion.

Embrace new traditions. 

I grew up as part of a large extended family with established holiday traditions and huge gatherings. Inevitably, as children grow, marry, and start their own families, traditions need to change to accommodate those dynamics. After years of stressing to set a Thanksgiving dinner akin to my childhood memories, I tried a simple menu of Cornish hens and roasted vegetables that reheats well, should there be any leftovers. This adaptation relieved the drudgery of an “everything you can think of” feast while creating an elegant dinner for the few guests that now grace my table. It has become our new family tradition. I also roast a turkey ahead of time so my husband can enjoy his family tradition of eating leftover turkey sandwiches later in the evening or the following day.

AS A GUEST – Go with the flow and keep a positive attitude.

Have an emergency exit strategy. 

When someone’s behavior becomes unruly at an event, feel free to leave. Preplan an exit strategy where disruptions are likely, such as gatherings that descend into heavy drinking. When you arrive, tell the host you may need to leave early. I know someone who arranges for a friend to call or text at a certain time during family gatherings with a coded message. It gives them an option to leave without causing offense, or to simply let the friend know they are staying.

Anticipate the unexpected. 

Recognize that family members who are challenged to think beyond “right now” are not going to be reliable hosts. Expect it and enjoy their positive traits. Some of the most delightful and warm-hearted people seem incapable of arriving at a place on time, or preparing to welcome guests at the planned start time. You cannot change them. Instead, just enjoy your time with them. 

Be good to the hosts.
Show up on time, and don’t come empty handed. Ask if you can bring a dish to share. Small hostess gifts are always welcome. Offer to help with preparations and clean ups. Leave on time.

AT ALL TIMES – Be the person others want to be around.

Whether you are a host or a guest, make a point to introduce yourself to newcomers and get to know them. If possible, make accommodations for individuals who have special needs. These acts of consideration will help to create a more pleasant atmosphere for everyone to enjoy their time together.

During a season when families gather to celebrate, feel free to lavish your kindness on the ones who are closest to you. I often need to ask myself if the way I interact is honoring God. When I consider the patience my own family has shown to me during my youth, I am inclined to pay it forward to younger generations that are now going through similar experiences.

Remember there is someone more generous than any of us will ever be.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Romans 5:8
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Barb Howe

Barb Howe edits blog posts at . She is a contributing author for a Guideposts book, has been published in Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse Jr., written multiple memoirs, and published numerous articles and posts for various organizations. "Stormy Encounters" is her first teen/YA work of fiction, available on Amazon in spring 2023. View "Wheels", the book's prequel short story at


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  1. Sheila Fry

    Very good tips. I have encountered many of these issues and you are spot on in keeping my own composure and extending grace. We are only accountable for ourselves. Praying ahead of time also helps.

  2. L C S

    How to survive a situation in which a significant other isn’t welcome at a son’s home, but is welcome at the rest of the family gatherings. In other words, part of the family welcomes him, but the two sons don’t.


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