Personally, I love family gatherings. Always have, ever since I was kid and family gatherings meant running amock with my cousins. Yet there’s no denying that with the onset of teenagehood, en mass family time becomes harder to bear. You don’t want to run amock with your cousins. You don’t want to run, period. But nor do you want to be grilled by your great uncle Pete on your GCSE, A level, degree and career choices when your whole brain is currently engaged in weighing up the relative merits of mum’s trifle versus aunt Anne’s cheesecake.
You need some survival tactics — some coping strategies you can employ when tensions are high and the conversation is low. Listen closely then, to the following advice. Because if anyone knows how to ride out an awkward family situation, it’s the girl with two stepparents, six step siblings, 10 cousins and more uncles, aunts and step uncles and aunts than you can shake an angry stick at…
Find a safe space
There will be moments when the atmosphere in the room is tense enough to tightrope on. These are the moments to find yourself suddenly and urgently needing the loo. You don’t actually have to go to the loo: in fact it’s probably best if you don’t, as you can bet your bottom penny you won’t be the only one with that escape route— but do, before you get stuck into the family time, scope out a quiet hiding place to which you can retreat when the going gets sticky. Mine was my grandad’s workshop — but I can also recommend attics, garages, large cupboards and the upper branches of an easily climbed tree.
Go armed with life choices
These do not need to be set in stone. They don’t even need to be real, in fact — but they need to be delivered with conviction. If it’s sociology and biology A-Levels followed by a stint on Love Island, you need to be as confident and positive about it as you might be a degree in law. See each family gathering as a dry run to a meeting with your careers advisor — we’ve loads of excellent betty guides here — and once great uncle Pete has dredged your entire future, turn the tables on him: nothing stops the Spanish inquisition like another Spanish inquisition.
Consider it an act of charity
For Pete’s sake, if no one else’s. You might not be living for the family do, but for the older members it’s probably the highlight of their social calendar: they’ll be dining off these memories until the next one comes around. Make them worth their chewing on – out of loving duty, preferably, but if it is easier to consider it your good deed of the week, then sure. Show them some affection, tell them your stories, ask questions and pay attention when they reply to you. What is the smallest sacrifice on your part – time – will be rewarded many times over by the pleasure you’ll give them – and besides, you may find you learn something. You don’t get to their age without racking up a fair few experiences, and, having grown up in a very different time to your own, their old tales are quite literally portals to another world.
My family are big game players: cards, Boggle, Pass the Bomb, Pit, Chinese Chequers, Rummikub, rounders, cricket: if it involves fighting each other to the death via the medium of a board or a pitch, we’re all over it. It makes for the perfect failsafe should conversation take a turn for the awkward, and – whisper it – it’s actually pretty fun. If your family don’t have any go-to games yet, initiate some. There’s plenty to choose from, and you can bend the rules to accommodate age and ability. Sure, you’ll be at each other’s throats by the end of it – but at least you’ll be arguing about spades and aces rather than the inheritance from your great aunt.
If all else fails – and there is a certain arm of my sprawling family for whom I have as much tolerance as I do a bluebottle trapped in a strip light – throw yourself into helping clear dishes, wash up, set tables and stir gravy with all the enthusiasm of those little mice in Cinderella. You’ll get brownie points AND you can minimise all unwanted contact with the fam.
Image: Katie Edmunds