For some families, holidays are just another excuse to get together to eat good food and to have a good time. They’re not looking for articles like this one because they’ve somehow figured out the formula for successful family togetherness with minimum stress. If you have a challenging family, it’s only human to be a bit incredulous and then more than a bit jealous to see other folks living out the holiday fantasy when you’re just trying to live through it.
Just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a lifetime of Thanksgivings where you just grin and go to your happy place until, thank goodness, it’s over! You can make a difference. You may even be able to start to enjoy your personal dysfunctional crowd. With a little planning and some social engineering, you can take control of the situation and make this Thanksgiving feel better.
First, make an honest appraisal of the family. It’s not new information that your mother doesn’t like your sister’s husband or your grandmother is going to want attention for her latest ache and pain. It’s not news to anyone that so-and-so has to be the center of attention or so-and-so somehow gets her feelings hurt every year. Instead of denying these realities, plan for them. (You get extra credit if you can find a way to have a sense of humor about them too.) Then consider using the following tips to begin to avoid at least some of the usual family drama.
1. Line up some co-conspirators. Chances are you’re not the only one who is irked by your family’s dysfunctional routines. Figure out who you can call on to help make things different. Then do some pre-event strategizing. Agree to tag-team each other with the folks you all find particularly difficult. Set up a signal you’ll use to call in a replacement. Brainstorm ways to steer a certain individual’s most tiresome and troublesome antics in a different direction.
2. Ask your co-conspirators to brainstorm ways to give challenging relatives an assignment: Is someone always critical of the menu? Ask her if she would please bring that complicated dish that is her trademark so she’ll have a place to shine. Is there a teenager who mopes about, bringing everyone down? Maybe offer to pay him to entertain the younger set for a couple hours after dinner so the adults can talk.
3. Invite “buffers.” Most people’s manners improve when outsiders enter the scene. If you can count on your family to put their best feet forward for company, invite some. (If not, don’t.) There are always people who would love a place to go on holidays or who would like to experience a real American Thanksgiving. Think about elderly people in your church or community whose grown children live far away, or divorced friends whose kids are with the other parent this year, or foreign exchange students from your local high school or college.
4. Nowhere is it written that there shall be alcohol whenever a family gets together. If there are problem drinkers in the family, let everyone know ahead of time that you are holding an alcohol-free party. Serve sparkling cider and an interesting non-alcoholic punch. People in your family who can’t stand being at a gathering without an alcoholic haze will probably leave early or decline the invitation. Everyone else will be spared another holiday ruined by someone’s inability to handle their drinking.
5. Take charge of seating. Have some of the younger kids make place cards and assign seats. Folks are less likely to switch places when admiring kids’ handiwork. Put people who rub each other the wrong way at opposite ends of the table. Seat the most troublesome person right next to you or one of your co-conspirators so that you can head off unfortunate conversation topics as soon as they start.
6. Guide the conversation. If your family doesn’t seem to know how to talk without getting into arguments or if you’re not the most socially adept person yourself, give yourself some help by introducing The Conversation Game (see below). Announce at the beginning of the meal that you want to use the gathering as a time to get to know each other better. Ask everyone to indulge you by playing the game for at least part of the meal. Hopefully, people will like this change in family dynamics enough to want to keep it going.
7. Give kids a way to be included. Then set them free. Kids are simply not going to enjoy being trapped at a table with adults (especially dysfunctional adults) for extended periods of time. They get restless. They get whiny. They slump in their chairs. Yes, they should be expected to behave with at least a minimum of decorum during the meal but head off complaints and tantrums by planning something for them to do while the adults linger at the table. Have the materials for a simple craft project set up and ready to go. Remember that teenager in #4? Perhaps this is when she plays a game outside with the younger kids while older ones watch a movie.
8. No willing teens? Set up a childcare schedule ahead of time so the adults spell each other. Auntie oversees a kid project while the rest of the adults finish their meal. Uncle takes the kids out to run around between dinner and desert. Plan ahead to share the load and nobody feels martyred and everybody has a better time.
9. Provide escape routes. Togetherness is not for everyone. Make sure there are ways for the shyer or more intimidated to get away from the crowd. If most people will be watching football, set up a movie in another room for those who want out. Ask for help in the kitchen to give the overwhelmed person a graceful way to withdraw from the bore who is boring her. Set up a jigsaw puzzle on a card table in a corner so that people who don’t want to be part of the conversation have a way to occupy themselves and still be part of the party. Arrange with one of your co-conspirators to suggest a before- or after-dinner walk for people who need a breather.
10. After everyone leaves, reward yourself. Sink into your favorite chair and give yourself credit (and an extra piece of pie?) for trying to make a difference. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to make significant change in the habits and attitudes of a dysfunctional family. Any small step in the right direction is something to be thankful for. Good for you!
The Conversation Game
This is a game the whole family can play. Make up a stack of cards with discussion starters on them. Brainstorm “starters” that will make people reminisce or laugh. Make sure to include cards that appeal to all ages. Some ideas are listed below.
To play the game, ask the person to your right to pick a card and read it. Each person at the table gets to answer. It’s fine for someone to “pass” if they don’t have something to say. After everyone has had a turn to respond, the deck gets passed to the next person to choose a card. And so on –
- What song brings up the happiest memories for you?
- If you were a car, what kind would you be?
- If you were given a thousand dollars with the rule that you couldn’t spend it on yourself, what would you do with it?
- What was the best day of your life so far?
- If you could change places with a celebrity, who would it be and why?
- If you could go to a fancy restaurant and price were no object, where would you go and what would you order?
- What is the best way to cheer you up when you’re down?
- What is the one thing you’ve done in your life that you are proudest of?
- What was your favorite childhood game or toy? (For kids – What is it now?)
- If you formed a band, what would you name it? What kind of music would you play?
- If you had the choice of a day: Would you rather choose a day 10 years ago or a day 10 years from now?
- If you could have 1 superpower, what would it be?
- If you could live somewhere else for a year, where would you go?
- If you knew you were going to spend a year in a science station in Antarctica, what 3 things would you most want to take with you to do when you weren’t working?
- What do you think is the secret to staying young at heart?
- When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Do you remember why? (For kids: What do you think you’d like to be and why?)
- What bargain would you love to find on eBay or at a garage sale?
- What do you really, really hope someone will invent soon?
- If someone gave you a gift certificate for a tattoo, what would you get and where would you put it?
- Which would you rather be: A famous athlete, a great singer, or an important politician?
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Hartwell-Walker, M. (2009). 10 Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving with the Dysfunctional Family. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 11, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/10-tips-for-surviving-thanksgiving-with-the-dysfunctional-family/0002637
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.