Amanda Lomanov, Psy.D.
5 Simple Steps to Minimize Family Drama: A Thanksgiving Survival Guide
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
No one’s family is perfect, so holidays and family gatherings can be stressful, even when you're not radically struggling with your mental health. That's why I've put together this handy guide for anyone who wants to make sure their Thanksgiving dinner doesn't turn fowl.
The most important (and highly frustrating!) thing to remember is that you can’t control your family, and you very likely will never change their minds. On anything. Ever. But you can control your own behaviors.
Try to keep in mind that you don’t have to engage in conversations you don’t want to engage in, and you don’t have to allow the judgments of others to cloud your own thoughts and perspectives.
Without further ado, these 5 simple steps will help you stay cool, calm, and collected this Thanksgiving.
1. Plan ahead
While it's true that family gatherings can be triggering, even simply reading about this topic is a great way for you to start anticipating stressors that might affect you on the big day. This kind of forethought helps you to feel more organized and prepared, which can decrease the amount of anxiety you ultimately experience.
Think about what kinds of things might make you feel triggered and need some extra time to yourself. Maybe it's mom asking you for the fifth time when you're going to get married or dad wondering when you'll get that promotion that does the trick. Or maybe it's Aunt Sally's judgmental tone or Tío Juan repeating the same fishing story for the 10th year in a row. Maybe cousin Vito is a Trump supporter who can't stop talking about 'fake news' ruining the nation.
Whatever the case, consider coming up with ‘safe’ topics ahead of time that you can discuss without feeling marginalized or judged. Think mostly neutral topics, like TV and movies, books, art, music, weekend plans, vacations... you get the idea. Stay away from topics like mental health, politics, news, and relationships, which might feel emotionally-charged and risk getting either of you riled up and lead to a negative confrontation.
Then, make a list of 3-5 things you could do to cope when Uncle Billy starts chatting with your fiancé about the next coming of Christ. For example, consider designating a friend you could text for moral support, looking up silly videos on youtube or memes on Instagram to make you smile, or set up a calming Pinterest board ahead of time with motivational quotes or serene images for you to scroll through when you need a little time to unwind.
2. Check in with yourself
During any potentially conflictual encounter, self-awareness will help you to stay composed and collected. It can be hard at first, but practicing mindful meditation (or, nonjudgmental observation of your thoughts and feelings) ahead of time, when you’re relatively calm, can prepare you for doing so in a stressful environment.
When it’s time for the triggering holiday get-together, mindfully observe your thoughts and emotions and monitor your stress levels on a scale from 1 to 10. If you notice that your stress is increasing beyond a 6, consider physically removing yourself from the situation by getting a drink of water, using the restroom to splash cold water on your face, or finding a more supportive relative or significant other to chat with. Then, when you’re back down to a 3, you might feel more ready to reconnect with the more challenging members of your family again.
3. Set a goal
Choosing a specific goal for your family interactions can also really help keep your mental health in check. For example, if you know that spending time with family can make you lose your temper, then consider creating a goal to avoid escalating a fight with your family.
As you continue to monitor your mood and reactions during the gathering, remind yourself of your goal before speaking.
If you feel an impulse to say something passive aggressive, for example, ask yourself before speaking, does this bring me closer to my goal, or further away?
This can help you recognize your own role in perpetuating a challenging family dynamic and take responsibility for any conflicts you might be experiencing with family members.
4. Don’t be afraid to set a healthy boundary
It may make us feel guilty to ask for what we want or need, especially when our relatives might act shocked or hurt by such a request, but there is no shame in respectfully standing your ground. Many of us fear that boundary-setting can come off as selfish or aggressive, but the truth is that
you deserve to choose how much of yourself you want to give at any given time.
Just as you would expect someone to respect a request not to invade your physical space, consider that your time, attention, and emotional investment is similarly important and worthy of protection.
Putting this into practice, of course, is harder than it sounds, but using the other tools listed above (planning ahead, mindfulness, and setting a goal for your interactions) can help you to figure out where your “line” is, in other words, that moment where you recognize it’s time to set a boundary. Now that you have a sense of when this might be helpful, practice saying no in polite ways ahead of time. Consider role-playing with friends.
For example, if you’re worried you’ll get caught in a criticism match with mom, remind yourself that you can say, “I know you think I need to change this thing about me right now, but let’s try to get along today.”
Or for someone who needs more insight into how their words affect you, maybe something like this would be better: “When you say x, I feel judged and hurt. Can we please not talk about this now?”
Something like this could also help bring awareness to an unaware relative: “Is this how you want us to remember Thanksgiving together?”
If all else fails, remember that you are free to leave the room until you recuperate at any time. The key to standing your ground is to be as consistent as possible. If you try setting a limit and then change your mind because they just won’t give up, that person will learn that if he or she persists, they will eventually get what they want.
5. Remember to have empathy
Because certain family members can be so challenging to get along with, we often forget that they are this way as a result of their own upbringings. For example, if Aunt Sally doesn’t "believe in" anxiety, this is most likely because she was taught that her feelings did not matter by her parents or caretakers growing up.
Although this can be hard to keep in mind, this is not an excuse for their behavior. It’s just a way for you to try to understand them, the way that you might wish they could understand you. Try to find one thing likable and relatable about these high-conflict family members and keep in mind that their behaviors and beliefs are a product of how they were raised.
Also, more importantly, remember to have empathy for yourself, too. Even if you end up getting triggered and acting in a way that you regret at your family event, self-growth is a process and you can learn about yourself from each challenge you face. It may not feel like the “right” thing to do to have patience with yourself, but what’s the benefit of beating yourself up?
about the author
My passion is helping people connect with their most authentic selves. Through this blog, I hope to offer resources to demystify psychotherapy and encourage you to think about your mental wellness.
In my integrative psychotherapy practice in Echo Park, my mission is to support you in finding your best self and living an examined life.