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10 Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving with the Dysfunctional Family


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.

How to Survive Thanksgiving Family Gatherings With These 10 Tips

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.

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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.

10 Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving with the Dysfunctional Family

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. 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.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). 10 Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving with the Dysfunctional Family. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.