How to Survive a Family Visit

by Judith Fein

If you are one of those lucky people whose family gets along superbly, who looks forward to flying or driving to visit family on holidays or special occasions, who can’t wait until the family gets together again, who slid out of the birth canal into a functional family, then stop reading--this article is definitely not for you.

If, on the other hand, you start popping Valium, drinking vodka or meditating obsessively two weeks before you have to go home (or wherever your family convenes), then, by all means, read on. 

Let’s face it, there are only two ways to think about family. Either you are born into one as an accident of fate (God’s divine sense of humor), or you mystically “chose” the family you were to plop into so that you could learn spiritual lessons. There may actually be a third possibility—that you are paying back some awful karma for unspeakable acts committed in a prior lifetime.

Whatever the case, you have been exposed to some or all of the events below when you grew up with or visited your family as an adult.


1) Screaming that could revive the dead and make them long for the peace of the grave

2) Heart-rending sobbing that would cause Caligula to weep

3) Spouses or significant others who stare into their dinner plates to avoid getting sucked into the black hole of rehashed drama

4)Shouting and posturing as siblings compete with each other to win parental favor

5)Deadly hours, days and even weeks, months and years where nothing of any significance is discussed. This blah blah prattle may be interspersed with minor and fleeting moments of perceived unfairness, injustice, indifference and cruelty

6)One member of the family daring to open up and speak honestly, only to be blackballed by the rest of the family or forced to take out the trash so the others can diss her/him

7)Family members who are not on speaking terms, and the craziness that ensues if one or more choose not to come, or if they choose to come

8) Long, deeply, searingly boring silence

9) Brooding and its attendant slumpy and puddly body language

10) Tsunamis of roiling envies that are overt or covert

11) Snide comments that eventually erupt into #1

12) Really sicko family members who are about as pleasant, welcoming and inevitable as environmental toxins

13) Endless gossip about those who are not present

14) Parents invoking their imminent demise (which may be 30 years away)

15) The will-- that elusive document that can be changed at any time, and all its ramifications

16) Parental disapproval and criticism which may be delivered with looks, gestures, frowning or clucking

17) Sibling disapproval and criticism which may erupt at once, or trickle out, like a leaky faucet

18) Triangulation: when two family members gang up on a third

19) Substance abuse which is denied, even though the substance abuser is 42 sheets to the wind and falling off his/her chair

20) Funny talk about childhood that turns to blame and shame as ha-ha morphs into oh-no

21) Really bad food like aspic with chunks

22) Really heavy, starchy, over or undercooked food that you have to eat to keep the peace (hey, anything’s better than talking)

23) A discussion about politics where you are ready to defect from the clan

24) Significant others, original spouses or second/third/fourth spouses of family members who came out of the vampire call sheets at central casting (don’t think Twilight, think Daybreakers)

25) Family members you grew up with, but no longer have anything other than some genetic material in common

Given all these possibilities for misery, why do you choose to go? Perhaps you are an enlightened soul, who can rise above it all or tap into an alternate reality. Or you like to suffer. Maybe duty propels you. Or a sense of what will happen if you don’t go.

You may actually like some family members. Or perhaps you are a member of the Guilt Club. It is even possible that hope (or amnesia) springs eternal in you, and you believe each time that it will be fine.

So there you go—paying hard-earned money for a plane ticket, stuffing your carry-on with gifts, using your vacation days to join the fold for holidays or special occasions.

How long does it take you to revert? If you are honest, the answer may be one hour or one day or even l5 minutes. If you don’t know what “revert” means, here is a definition: the amount of time it takes you to slip out of the robes of adulthood into the bib, overalls, party dresses or pajamas of childhood, emotionally speaking. The reverting can be caused by a comment, a look, a button precisely pushed, a screed, a slight or habits someone in your family has that have gotten impossibly worse and even more annoying with age.

So how do you survive the family visit? Here are a few tips:

1)Make it really short. Lie and use excuses if you have to—like, a project is due and I will be fired or thrown out of school if I don’t get it in on time.

2)Get air. Literally. Go for walks. Talk to birds. Jog. Go for a swim. Stick your head out the window.

3)Have a mantra you can repeat when things go south. Try: “This is temporary, and soon I will be home again.”  Or “ This is my family, but I am not like them.”  Or “Why have you forsaken me, God?” or “I will really really like myself if I bite my lip until it falls off and control my temper.”

4)Let your revenge fantasies remain in your mind. Do not think of acting them out.

5)Get honest. Say “this is not good for me,” and leave. At least for a while. In extreme cases, you may actually throw your belongings into a suitcase and leave. But be prepared for consequences which may, heaven forbid, include a truth and reconciliation visit.

Perhaps the most important part of a family visit is what you do afterwards. Plan for a vacation. Maybe a day with no phone or computer. Or a half day at a spa. Or a quick trip to Zanzibar.

If you are truly a saint, you should follow up the unbearable visit with a note or email to say how pleasant it was. But be careful you don’t go overboard and say, “Hope to do it again soon.”

Of course, all of the above applies to a family visit if they come to you. Try smudging your house afterwards, as it will dissipate any bad energy. If the horror was severe, you can throw out a chair someone sat on, a plate from which a person ate, or even the dining room table. A replacement is less expensive than years of shrink bills.

The final tip for surviving a family visit is to tilt your head back, open your yap, and laugh about it. When all is said and done, when the dishes are washed and the burnt turkey parts are put away, there are chuckles to be milked if you are a writer, standup, comic book or cartoon artist, actor, singer, songwriter or person with a really good sense of humor. Just keep laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing…until they cart you away.


Judith Fein, an award-winning travel journalist, speaker and filmmaker, is co-founder of  She lives to leave, is always working, and needs a real vacation.

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