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Talking Turkey: Managing Unhappy Relatives at Holiday Time

Almost all families seem to have at least one member who has made a career of being unhappy. In their distress, these people accuse, complain, sigh, and make it difficult for others to enjoy the moment. In their misery, it’s hard for them to let others be happy. In their loneliness and pain, they seem to do everything possible to stay lonely.

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, you’re probably dreading the fact that the cousin or aunt or in-law who always casts a pall on holiday get-togethers is going to be at your table again. You’re not looking forward to making small talk with someone who can make even the weather seem like a personal tragedy. It’s tempting to not invite such folks to family gatherings. It’s tempting to stay away yourself. But the bonds of family are such that to do either of those things just doesn’t seem right. To give in to these temptations feels like letting the bad stuff in the world win. Let’s talk about what you can do instead.

Merely “Down” or Really Depressed?

Some people do seem to look at the world through “dark, cloud-colored glasses.” Unlike the rose-colored kind, these glasses make everything look impossible, disappointing, or hopeless. People who wear them seem like they can’t be talked out of what they see or talked into taking them off. People who seem to be wearing them all the time are depressed.

It’s very important to distinguish between someone who is temporarily “down” and someone who is suffering from clinical depression. People who are “down” respond to the concern of family and friends and some common sense cheering up. Clinical depression is a serious mental disorder that needs professional treatment as well as the support of a loving family. “Down” usually has some “ups” throughout the day; depression is pervasive and affects the whole day. “Down” is usually related to a specific event; depression is a cloud that settles over someone’s entire life.

If you think a relative is clinically depressed, maybe it’s time for the family to face it together and to gently speak to that person about getting some professional treatment. Modern medicine, coupled with psychotherapy, usually can help.

Talking Turkey: Managing Unhappy Relatives at Holiday Time

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. (2020). Talking Turkey: Managing Unhappy Relatives at Holiday Time. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.