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Staying With Family? How to Survive and Stay Sane

By Andrea M. Darcy

You love them, sure. But  staying with family is a different story.  How can you cope if you must spend time at theirs? 

12 Tips for surviving staying with family

Here are some helpful tips for staying sane when living under the roof of your in laws, parents, siblings, or extended family.

1. Use positive language. 

It might sound a small thing, but if you are constantly using negative terms to describe your sojourn with family, like joking you are ‘in jail’, or ‘stuck with the in laws’? You are programming your brain to be in stress mode. Try positive phrases that make you feel like you can breathe, like, ‘a short stay that will be over before we know it’, or ‘a little family getaway’.

2. Agree on a parenting style.

If there is one place that conflicting parenting styles  can be embarrassing, it is when other family members are watching. Note this also gives people like your mother leverage to complain about your partner.

A united front is particularly essential if other family members treat your kids in ways you don’t like, or that wilfully break your parenting rules. And note if you are disagreeing, you are programming your kids to not get along long term.

 A study published in ‘the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that if and how siblings get along is affected by the parenting styles they experience.

So sit down and make your decision in advance on what is and isn’t going to be acceptable. It’s okay to decide on entirely new parameters (mindful parenting is worth investigating). Write down your decisions, share the new ‘ground rules’ for the trip with your kids, and consider speaking to any wayward family members in advance about the parenting rules you don’t want challenged. 

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3. Lower your expectations. And then lower them again.

Often we don’t even admit to ourselves how high our expectations for ourselves and others even are. We expect ourselves to not react when our mother-in-law criticises us, our kids to go to bed on time, the grandparents not to spoil the kids. And it all causes tons of unnecessary stress when we deep down know that none of that will happen. 

What if you just let it all go? Sit down and make a list. Then try to cross off all the things that don’t actually matter that much if you are honest with yourself. 

surviving lockdown

Dropping our expectations creates room for us to notice the surprises that come along. You might recognise that your children are far more resilient than you realised, and that your partner is better at helping clean up after a family dinner than you give them credit for. 

4. Remember who you are speaking to.

It’s normal to revert to speaking without thinking when we are tired and frustrated.

But remember that different generations come from different places. The more we can talk in ways others can actually take in, the more we avoid pointless upset over misunderstandings.

So don’t rant at your mother-in-law about the slow internet if she never uses it. Save that for your teenager who will be happy to moan along. And if your five-year old wants to know why you are crying in the kitchen, try to explain in words that make sense to him, so he doesn’t feel more confused, left out, or at fault. 

5. Remember the basics of good communication.

Ideally, read our article onCommunicating Well Under Stress’. But to cover the basics:

  • Don’t start a conversation when on an emotional buzz. Get the emotions out first with journalling, exercising, whatever works for you.
  • Don’t use blame language’, aka, ‘you did this, you did that, you made me feel…”.
  • Instead, start sentences with ‘I’, or use the “I feel—- when you ——“ structure. (“I feel frustrated when you have a long shower and leave me less hot water”).
  • Avoid pulling other people who aren’t there into the conversation. Keep the discussion between you and the person you are talking to.

6. When in doubt shut up and listen. 

Listening is an art form and a superpower that can turn around the most complicated situations. Don’t interrupt, allow space for reflection, reflect back, listen fully without preparing what you’ll say next in your head, and when in doubt ask good questions. You’ll find people who were frustrated with you suddenly see you as an ally.

(Go read our article on ‘How to Listen Like a Therapist‘ for more on this skill.)

7. Have a time out space when staying with family.

Everyone needs to know they can go somewhere to be alone if they are overwhelmed. Use the washroom if needs be, or suddenly take the dog for a long walk! 

Otherwise, if you are lucky enough that everyone has their own rooms, consider each making a ‘do not disturb’ sign, within limits… it can’t be used to just hide away and play video games.

You might also want to consider together coming up with a ‘stop word’ for when someone is overwhelmed by a conversation. It is fine if it is silly and brings laughter instead of conflict… ‘green bananas’ works as well as plain old ‘time-out please’.

8. Don’t triangle or ‘gang’.

‘Triangling’ is when you are disagreeing with one person and pull a third person in, even if they are not physically there (“well your sister agrees, she said that…”).

Ganging up is when there is a conflict and you pull everyone in the room on your side against the other person.

These things are so easy to do that many families have ‘normalised’ this behaviour. But an issue is best kept between you and the person you have the issue with. 

What if everyone in a family does agree on one thing but one person? Isn’t that ganging up? Not if they are not made ‘wrong’ for having a difference of opinion and it’s a discussion, not a conflict. It’s perfectly fine (and healthy) to disagree.

9. Be angry at the person they were then, not who they are now.

Conflict of course WILL happen when we are stuck with family. And old issues can rise from the dead with dancing shoes on.

Suddenly your teenager is furious about something you did when she was eight. Or you are angry at your own mother over what she said at your wedding twenty years ago.

It’s good to air old issues that need resolving. But remember that we all grow and change. You aren’t that person you were on your wedding day, and your mother, too, has changed. Let the anger come out, explain how upset you were, but remember it is at the person then, not the person sitting across the table from you.

10. Delegate more.

Are you the parent who does it all? Time to hang up those shoes. It’s no longer about getting things done ‘right’. It’s about letting everyone feel relevant and useful and part of the ‘team’. 

11. Find your wellbeing activities and then actually DO them.

We all know what wellbeing activities work to level our moods, whether that is yoga, meditating, stretching, or having a bath. The problem is actually taking the time to do them when staying with family. But this is when we need them most!

Let your family know in advance that you are taking a time out later in the day to do something important. Or engage the family to do wellbeing together, like a walk in nature or all doing an online dance class together.

12. Focus on the gifts of the situation.

How many times have you said you need more time with the kids? Or you and your partner need to reconnect? Or how often have you secretly wished you and your partner could be more honest with your parents about some things you disagree on? Here is your chance.

It might not be perfect, it might be messy in moments, there might be tears, but despite it all, this is a time of bonding. And when the smoke clears, you’ll still be family… and perhaps closer than ever before.

Can’t manage to get to family or couples therapy? Did you know that both family therapy and couples counselling can be done over the internet? Book with a London-based expert now, or use our booking site to find registered online therapists UK-wide


Andrea BlundellAndrea M. Darcy is the founding editor and lead writer of this blog. She has training in person-centred counselling and coaching. 

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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress, Parenting, Relationships

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