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Family Dynamics

6 Tips for Thanksgiving with a Difficult Family

How to navigate (*ahem*) challenging family dynamics this holiday season.

Every holiday season, family get-togethers can be filled with drama, judgment, and barely concealed eye rolls. The turkey gets served with a side of passive-aggressive stink-eye and you lose track of the number of trips you need to count to ten in the powder room. Therefore, here are six tips for dealing with extended family on Thanksgiving (or any family gathering, for that matter).

Tip #1: Search for what you have in common. This holiday season, a divided nation means many divided families. Uncle Jack watches Hannity, while cousin Molly loves Colbert. If your family is a mix of Never Trumpers and MAGA-hat wearers, you may be biting your tongue extra hard over pumpkin pie.

But there is more to life than politics. Search for what you have in common. Every family shares a common history, so start there. Funny childhood stories? How Grandma met Grandpa? Alternatively, take the opportunity to get to know each other better. Ask about each person’s last travel adventure or the best concert you’ve ever been to. Even with impeachment and a presidential campaign in full swing, we can all connect on values and activities that have nothing to do with politics.

Tip #2: Team up with a buddy. Seek out a like-minded relative (you’ll find her desperately using her meditation app on the back porch) and agree to look out for one another. For example, rescue your cousin from getting cornered by Uncle Rick (after all, you really need help arranging the hors d’oeuvres); in return, ask her to suddenly, urgently need your assistance when your sister tries to ask you for money.

Tip #3: Engage in socially acceptable avoidance. I don’t advocate this tactic in everyday life, but if it’s just to get you through the holiday weekend, I’ll cut you yards of slack. Socially acceptable ways to get out of the house to avoid family include volunteering at a community Thanksgiving for the less fortunate, running a turkey trot 5K, or even get starting on your holiday shopping (just be sure to tell your family you’re looking for presents for them).

If you do get stuck in the house, focus on judiciously avoiding the one or two people you know you’ll have a hard time with. When Aunt Dottie sets her sights on you, see if folks in the kitchen need a hand, offer to head out to the grocery store for forgotten ingredients, or round up a group for a brisk walk and get out of the house. In the end, do whatever works. Again, avoidance doesn’t work in the long run, but used wisely, it can get you safely through until it’s time for pie.

Tip #4: Skip or limit the booze. A direct, though perhaps controversial, method to curb bad behavior is not to serve alcohol, or only to have a bottle or two of Cabernet on hand along with six or seven bottles of sparkling apple cider. You do run the risk of Uncle Milt heading off to the liquor store for a 12-pack, but your message will be clear.

Tip #5: If your family holds in the crazy for strangers, invite a friend along. Someone new and uninitiated--a work colleague with family far away or your friendly French neighbor who wants to try a real American Thanksgiving--may improve your family’s conduct. If your family errs on the side of good behavior when there’s a stranger among them, this could be a win-win. Needless to say, if Uncle Richard would pick a fight even if the Queen were coming, spare your friend the ordeal.

And, finally, Tip #6: Plan a post-Thanksgiving night out (or in) with friends. Before Thanksgiving weekend, plan a get-together with your friends for a day directly following the holiday. Consider it time to debrief, tell all the crazy stories, and shake your heads (he said what?) That way, you’ll experience the Thanksgiving day shenanigans not as a migraine in the making, but as fodder for your night out.

All in all, remember most of us are in the same boat and approach the holidays with a sense of humor and a live-and-let-live attitude. A wise person once defined “dysfunctional family” as any family with more than one person in it. You may not be able to choose your family, but you can choose a shrewd strategy or two to keep you sane. With some practice, you and your extended family may even figure out how to explain your younger brother’s James Charles-inspired winged eyeliner to Grandma.

More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
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