Keeping the fun in family reunions

by Diane Brown, IU Communications Specialist

My family reunion is just a few days away.

Perhaps you are like me and look forward to such an occasion with a little bit of apprehension. Family get-togethers have the potential for making memories worthy of a Hallmark movie — or an episode of “Cops.”

One of the great things about working on a university campus is that you have access to outstanding professional minds who can shed practical insight on numerous life situations.

So I turned to the campus professionals at Counseling and Psychological Services — commonly known as CAPS — for some words of advice. Staff psychologist Kory Carey and CAPS Director Julia Lash graciously offered their words of wisdom.

Remember the purpose and set reasonable expectations, Lash said.

“ defines reunion as ‘a gathering of relatives, friends or associates at regular intervals or after separation.’ The purpose of the reunion is to ‘gather,’ touch base, catch up, not to cultivate deep, intimate relationships,” the CAPS director said. “Your reunion will NOT look like a Hallmark card. Remember, those cards are snapshots — not in real time.”

Julia Lash, Director, CAPS

Julia Lash, Director, CAPS

“Expect to enjoy conversations with some, and not with others,” Lash said. “Know that some people will enjoy their day, and others will not. That is not a failure; that is reality!”

Both Lash and Carey addressed my questions about handling landmine conversations such as comments about your weight or political views.

Their advice: Know whom you can talk to about what.

“Know your own limits,” Carey said. If you know that you may get “overheated” talking with a particular person about a certain topic, “take care of how you allow that person to engage you,” Carey said.

“The cousin that has been on the opposite side from you on all political and social issues for the past decade is not likely to have seen the light.”

Korey Carey, staff psychologist, CAPS

Korey Carey,  Staff Psychologist, CAPS

If you are able to connect with a like-minded relative, share your thoughts. Otherwise, nod your acknowledgement and step away from a potentially volatile conversation, Lash said.

As for unsolicited remarks about your weight, while they most likely will put you on the defensive, don’t return tit for tat.

Try saying something like “Wow, that was pretty blunt!” to casually alert the other person to his or her rudeness and to set a boundary that will get you your respect.

And how do you handle mad dashes for the final piece of pecan pie? Or the scramble to make sure you get a piece of Aunt Mae’s pound cake?

In Carey’s case, the family prize is an aunt’s honeybun cake — a delightful yellow cake with cinnamon, nuts and plenty of sugary glaze.

“At our last family gathering, someone actually tried to hide the entire cake,” Carey said.

Her advice: “Choose your battles wisely. … Is this something I want to get into an argument over, or is it a piece of food that I can have in another setting.” And if it is a case of equity and fairness, don’t be afraid to tell someone that they have already had one slice.

For many families, drinks at the typical family gathering are stronger than soft drinks or double-strength Kool-Aid (one of my favorites).

Honey Bun Cake

Kory Carey’s Aunt Brenda’s Honey Bun Cake

Carey and Lash sounded a warning: avoid excessive alcohol/substances.

Among other things, alcohol lowers our inhibitions and ability to make quick judgment calls,” Lash said. “Making good decisions about what we say and do may prevent a difficult situation from becoming traumatic.”

Everyone has seen YouTube videos of alcohol-fueled fights at family gatherings, even weddings.

In some families, an esteemed member may have the verbal or physical clout to calm warring factions. If you aren’t that person, stay out of the fray, and under no circumstances should you try to be a physical referee, Carey said.

“Refrain from physical confrontations,” Carey said. If dire circumstances erupt, allow police or family relatives with law enforcement background to handle the situation.

Take a break when needed: Give yourself permission to take a break during the day. Step outside, go to the restroom or check on something in your car. If you feel tense or overwhelmed, give yourself a chance to de-stress — take a few deep breaths — and when you are ready to leave, go home.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, have fun, both professionals said.

Don’t take things too seriously. Go into the reunion with the expectation of having fun and enjoying the moment!


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