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Navigating Thanksgiving with Difficult Relatives

Thanksgiving. It’s the only general American feast day. The magazine covers at the checkout counter are filled with colorful pictures of pies and pumpkins, vegetable dishes and, of course, that glorious, huge golden brown stuffed bird. In every hosting household, lists are made of food to buy and dishes to prepare for an annual gathering centered on family togetherness and, let’s face it, enthusiastic gluttony followed by football.

Meanwhile, for many people, Thanksgiving is also fraught with anxiety about family dynamics. Will there be tension between that mother and that daughter-in-law? (Yes. Probably.) Will the kids who usually fight with each other get along? (Probably not.) Will that uncle who always drinks too much do it again? (Yup.) Will the food critic of the group find something to criticize or decline with a grimace? (Also Yup.) Will most of the people try to make it a pleasant day at least most of the time? (Hopefully.) For some families, what should be a day of celebration and warm togetherness is instead fraught with barely contained anxiety.

It’s just true. We can’t change our relatives. We can only change our response to them. If your family is difficult, if you both love and hate the idea of getting together around the turkey table with the whole menagerie called your kin, repeat after me: “You can’t change your relatives.” But — Here’s the good news: You can change your experience of the day.

It’s not only true that what you see is what you get. What we get is often influenced by what we choose to see. If we focus on all the ways that family members will let us down on a holiday, we are actually sensitizing ourselves to seeing them do just that. If instead, we can decide to focus on the positive and generally minimize the negative, chances are we will come away from the holiday meal feeling much better about the group and ourselves.

That does not mean ignoring truly abusive or harmful behaviors. If anyone is sexually inappropriate or verbally or emotionally abusive or violent, the best strategy is to scoop up the kids and leave. But short of that, when some of the people around the holiday table are just their usual disappointing, inappropriate, ill-mannered or obnoxious selves, there are some strategies you can use to change the tone and to save the holiday for yourself and your kids.

Prepare yourself: It’s not new information who is going to do predictable negative behavior. Remind yourself that yes, it will happen and no, it has nothing to do with you.

Prepare your responses: I repeat: Problem behavior by problem people is predictable. If there are people who feel free to comment on your parenting style, your weight, your politics or your job choices (as only a few of the myriad topics that critics find to criticize),  prepare and rehearse your responses so you are not, once again, caught like a deer in the headlights. You can always reply something like, “Thank you for your concern” or “Yes, I’ll think about that.” Or “That’s a very interesting perspective.” Such comments acknowledge the person but don’t commit you to changing a thing,

Set the tone at the table: Focus the group on gratitude; It sometimes makes my kids groan but I always insist that we start the Thanksgiving meal with each person stating something they are grateful for. Gratitude is, after all, supposed to be at the core of this day. There is always something to be grateful for – even if it is the fact that we have a place to live and running water when so many people don’t. But I encourage these now young adults to think back on their year and to highlight some of the many positive things that have happened since last Thanksgiving. After the usual, “Do we have tos”, they start sharing important events from their lives for which they are thankful. Often it is serious. Just as often it is funny and fun. Putting the thanks back into Thanksgiving is something we all can do regardless of whatever else is going on.

Limit alcohol: If drinking seems to bring out the worst in people and the celebration is at your house, limit the amount of alcohol served. Let people know ahead of time so those who can’t stand the idea of a family get-together without being intoxicated can make other plans. If the celebration is elsewhere, remember that you don’t have to stay if people become disagreeable when they’ve had too much. There’s no need to get into an argument about how much is too much. Just politely plead a headache or the need to get home for whatever you might need to get home for, say your thank yous and leave.

Avoid setting up kids for misbehavior: Young kids who are not used to sitting through a whole long meal will inevitably get restive. To expect them to be exemplary is a set up. If you haven’t taught and practiced good table manners as a regular part of your family curriculum, they aren’t going to have them just because they are at Grandma’s for Thanksgiving. The traditional “kids’ table” is one solution. Another is to stay alert for when the kids have had enough and excuse them before they get antsy. P.S. Make a note to yourself that you have some parenting work to do so that they are more prepared to participate in a more formal setting next year.

Take breaks: There are many ways to get a breather if things are tense. Go to the bathroom. Offer to read to the kids for awhile. Go for a walk. Help out in the kitchen. Ask a teenager to explain an app. Use the time to do some deep breathing and to reground yourself. Go back to the group feeling restored and able to manage for awhile longer.

Have an exit strategy: The goal is to leave while you are feeling fine – or at least mostly fine. Don’t wait until you’ve “had it”. Don’t wait for a kid melt down or a full blown and painful family argument. Stay alert: You can see it coming. Don’t ignore the signs that tell you that it’s time to go while the going is good. Make polite excuses. Stay on the high road even if someone else has gone low. Blame your early departure on needing to feed the dog (it doesn’t matter if you don’t have one) or on a concern that you are getting sick (even if you’re not) or worries about the traffic. Honesty isn’t the best policy. Leaving graciously without blaming or shaming anyone or being upset is.  When you get home (actually when you get in the car), congratulate yourself for handling things well and do something that makes you calm and happy.

Navigating Thanksgiving with Difficult Relatives

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Navigating Thanksgiving with Difficult Relatives. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 21 Nov 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.