Social Minefield: How To Survive Thanksgiving With Your Family


Last week, we gave some tips on feeding your family over Thanksgiving. Today: advice on how to avoid killing them.

Pretty much everyone I talked to for this week’s Minefield had some sort of family-Thanksgiving horror story to share. Several asked that I not quote these stories, because they have to have dinner with those people again next week. And there’s the rub of the family holiday dinner — short of a full-on breakup, no matter how bad it gets, you still have to do it again. Luckily, there are some ways to make things a lot more pleasant.

Welcome newcomers.

It’s stressful to be the new person sharing a holiday meal with in-laws, potential in-laws, or friends for the first time. Helping this person feel comfortable is the kind thing to do, but it can also make things more fun for everyone. Families can get caught up in old tensions and patterns, and getting some new blood into the mix can help defuse these — think of it as the conversational equivalent of avoiding inbreeding. Quick story: my grandmother is into serving Swedish pickled fish at every family meal. Until I was about 21, I’d never seen anyone but her eat it, and pretty much everyone else regarded its presence on the table as some combination of performance art and punishment. Then the second-newest addition to the family paid the newest one $1 to eat some. I wish I could say he found it delicious and we all love it now, but actually he was totally disgusted and we all still avoid it like the plague. However, we do openly laugh about its presence now, and we laugh more in general with the newcomers around.

Jenny Rosenstrach of Dinner: A Love Story gave me this advice for making newcomers feel more at home:

[T]he easiest way to make a new Thanksgiving guest feel comfortable at the table is to compliment him or her on the food he or she has contributed. (And if this person hasn’t contributed or offered to contribute, then I’m not sure you need to encourage a return visit!) Whether it’s a chocolate pudding pie that she made with Jacques Torres organic cacao and Martha Stewart’s pate brisee or whether it is platter of olive-green, overcooked asparagus, it always makes someone feel part of the bigger picture to acknowledge and show appreciation for whatever was cooked, bought, or assembled.

Another easy tip: ask questions! New family members may feel uncomfortable talking about themselves, or joining in Round Eight Million of an age-old family discussion, so draw them out by asking (polite, non-prying) stuff about them. Jobs or school can be good topics to get people talking (when they’re planning on procreating: not good). And talking to a new person can be a good way to sidestep family conflict. Which brings us to …

Laugh off criticism — or address it beforehand.

It’s a cliche because it’s true: holiday gatherings can be a time when all the year’s stored-up criticisms come out in one big gross ball of bile. Clinical psychologist Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler (author of, among other books, “I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!”: A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict) gave me this tip on how to deal with relatives who take Thanksgiving dinner as an invitation to critique your life choices:

The best way, if at all possible, is to use humor. Laugh it off: “Yeah, that’s me!” and then let the comment slide off you as if you’re Teflon-coated. Since this probably isn’t the first (or last) time you’ve heard particular criticisms from particular relatives, remember that the comment says more about them than about you.

Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, author of Forced to Be Family: A Guide for Living with Sinister Sisters, Drama Mamas, and Infuriating In-Laws, told me,

If your parent is one of those that’s always going to find fault with you and you know that they’re probably going to bring something up in front of the entire family […], one of the things that you can do is take him or her aside and just kind of have a heart-to-heart and say, “I’m not feeling that good about the holidays this year, […] and it seems like we’ve gotten into this routine where every time I come home, we fall back into the parent-child syndrome and you’re kind of looking at the things that I’m not doing. Maybe this year you could focus on what I am doing or just not even focus on me at all, because it’s really a time when I’m wanting to be with people who love me and wanting to be in a nurturing, positive environment.”

If the critical person is an in-law, Dellasega suggests having your partner — or one of their siblings to whom you’re close — approach the critic rather than doing it yourself. And if the direct approach doesn’t work, try taking yourself out of the situation — go to the bathroom, make a phone call, check on the turkey — so that the critical person simply can’t focus on you anymore.

Mix things up, but be aware of old baggage.

Holidays can be a time when we revert to old bad behaviors and rehash ancient grievances — especially among siblings. Cohen-Sandler says long-standing sibling rivalry “is probably the hardest aspect of being with relatives for the holidays.” Here’s her advice:

If you’re aware of these old patterns, it may be easier to sidestep them. Try deliberately doing something to shake things up. For example, if your youngest sibling (the “baby” of the family) always does attention-getting things because s/he feels less important or valued, give her or him an important job or leadership role. Best of all, anticipate how siblings push your buttons so if and when they do, you won’t be so easily baited.

Welcoming in new guests can be one way to shake things up — so can new traditions. It’s actually surprisingly easy to introduce one of these — a couple of years ago my family started buying Christmas crackers, and now we spend a significant portion of Christmas dinner discussing the weird trilingual jokes (“Why did the tomato turn red? ¡Un periódico!”) and crappy toys (plastic basketball hoops sized for mice). This is time we can’t spend arguing about inflammatory stuff like politics or whether science is real. Speaking of which:

Deflect divisive arguments — beforehand, if possible.

I like a good argument, and I think respectful, one-on-one arguments with some family members (the best example is my brother) have actually brought us closer. But pretty much everyone knows that the holiday table is a shitty place to get into a discussion of controversial issues. You can’t be sure how everyone feels beforehand, there are likely to be major differences (as Dellasega points out, family members today often live far apart from each other and have very different lives), and there’s often that one person who just won’t let things drop even when it’s obviously time. Dellasega suggests a preemptive strike — if you’re bringing a guest or partner to a family meal, for instance, you can warn him or her ahead of time not to discuss politics, and to change the subject if someone tries to bring it up. Cohen-Sandler recommends this topic-changing gambit:

If you can, cut them off at the pass with a smile and firm, “Let’s not go there, okay?” and change the subject. Ask them about a more neutral topic — preferably something about what’s happening in their own lives or those of their children. People love to talk about themselves and their kids!

If that doesn’t work, Dellasega suggests stepping in with a simple statement like,

You know, we’re never going to agree on this — we each have our own opinion, it’s the holidays, and it’s really not a time when we got together to discuss politics. We got together to be thankful for what we have or to spend a nice meal together, so let’s focus on that instead.

If that doesn’t work and one person still won’t let the argument die, Dellasega advises, “Let them continue but [don’t] respond to them — talk about something else as a group, and eventually just shut them down in that way.”

If all else fails, try a timeout.

If emotions run high and people are starting to seem hurt, Dellasega suggests separating anyone who’s arguing and asking them to take a minute to calm down. Here’s her script:

Wait, let’s both of you take a deep breath, let’s settle down. You go to the living room, you go to the kitchen, sit down for a couple of minutes, think about what you’re upset about, it’s not that big a deal. […] This is something the two of you can settle another time, have a conversation about another time. It’s just between the two of you, and while the whole family is together we want to enjoy each other, so let’s have a good time. Let’s play a board game, or look at funny videos from last year or do something that we can all enjoy.

Even if the argument takes place at the table and it’s not practical to send people to separate rooms, it can be a good idea to step in and politely ask people to chill, rather than just sitting there in embarrassed silence.

Have a goal.

A lot of the above focuses on dealing with critical or problematic relatives, but sometimes you’re the critical one. The holidays are stressful, stress can bring out people’s bad sides, and it’s easy to get focused on who’s being an asshole and how much your family sucks. To combat this, Cohen-Sandler offers this advice:

Don’t expect perfection; things probably won’t go completely smoothly or conflict-free. There will likely be tensions. But decide to focus on what you CAN control. For example, set an intention for the holiday. That is, think about a goal for yourself such as focusing on what is enjoyable for you: “I will spend time talking to Aunt Lily” or “I will play with the nieces and nephews.” If you do find yourself getting into old, unpleasant ways of thinking, give yourself a break. You’re not perfect, either. Focus on what you’re doing that feels good to you.

Making a plan for something you want to do (and it should be something reasonable, not “make everyone agree on everything”) can help you get excited about a holiday gathering rather than thinking of it as something to be endured, or a series of arguments waiting to happen. And focusing on what you’re doing can keep you from being judgmental of other people. Whatever happens, Dellasega offers this important reminder: “we enter the holidays already stressed, and it’s not surprising that there are flare-ups, and just recognizing that and going easy on yourself and easy on other people — and they should do the same — can be a real benefit.”

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For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

Dinner: A Love Story [Home]
Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D. [Home]
Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. [Home]
Forced To Be Family: A Guide For Living With Sinister Sisters, Drama Mamas, And Infuriating In-Laws
I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A New Understanding Of Mother-Daughter Conflict
Time For Dinner: Strategies, Inspiration, And Recipes For Family Meals Every Night Of The Week

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