How to Deal with Thanksgiving Family Drama

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
© Gillian Vann / Stocksy United

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day of reflection, quality time, yummy food and gratitude. You know it’s good to be grateful — healthy, even — but sometimes it’s just plain hard. 

Like when your extended family, all of whom have very different beliefs, gather together once a year for dinner. Sure, it’s great seeing everyone (well, most of them) but there’s SO much that can go wrong, it makes you anxious just thinking about it.

For example, there’s always that family member (who shall remain nameless) who decides to start ranting about politics. But according to Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a University of Washington professor and sociologist who studies relationships and family dynamics, the holidays are simply not the time to engage in controversial topics.

Think about it like this: If you get in a heated discussion or argument, it’s not going to be fun for anyone involved, no matter what “side” they’re on. No one’s opinion is going to be radically altered in a single night. And arguing misses the point of the holiday, which is supposed to be about coming together, Schwartz says. 

Just like that Saturday Night Live skit, wanting to relax together instead of arguing is probably something you and your family can agree on, no matter how different you are. So if you want to save the experience from being tainted by disagreement and instead focus on the positives of the day, here’s what Schwartz recommends. 

(Side note: This advice is for everyday family drama. If you’re nervous about the holidays because your family has experienced more serious issues, like alcoholism or estrangement, that’s worth talking about with a mental health professional.)

Write down your intentions

Before you leave for the gathering, write a note to yourself planning how you’ll behave and what you’ll do if someone says something that riles you. For example, if you know your parents will overload you with unsolicited advice about your life and relationship, promise yourself you’ll nod and smile politely and then move on.

If you make a pact with yourself, you’re more likely to follow through if the situation arises. And since you likely know what remarks will provoke you and which family members they’ll come from, preparing before you even set foot in the same room can help you feel less overwhelmed or unsure how to respond once you are together.

And, hey, if you keep your promise by not engaging in any divisive chatter, that means you get to reward yourself with an extra slice of pie, right?

Use the buddy system

Ask a partner, spouse, sibling or other like-minded relative to be your support. Tell them what you’re dreading about the event, and ask if they can intervene if they notice you’re in an uncomfortable situation. Be clear about what kind of help you need — for example, make sure they know you don’t want them to take the heat off of you by starting an argument — and offer to do the same for them if they want.

Break up the tension

If you’re in a conversation that grows tense or you come upon two arguing relatives, use de-escalation techniques. Try changing the subject to something benign, like the Seahawks or your favorite new Netflix binge.

If none of that works, find a way to physically remove the worst offender from the room. Ask them for help with a task in a different room, like rinsing dishes or taking out the trash, and insist that they join you.

A little well-intended shaming never hurt, either: Remind everyone that you aren’t here to get in a fight and that you want everyone to enjoy spending time together. Explain that you’re only trying to protect the holiday from turning into a battleground and that it would be disappointing if all the adults in the room couldn’t be civil for one day.

If someone says something that upsets you and you’re having trouble dealing, don’t feel like you need to fake a smile. It’s OK to excuse yourself and detach from the situation that’s causing you distress. Take a walk or a short drive to clear your head, or go into another part of the house and do a task that will take your mind off of it.

Get to know someone

Large family gatherings may be the only time each year that you see certain relatives. This can make the time together extra special, but it can also make things anxiety-provoking if you know you and the relative in question don’t have a lot in common. How do you bond with them in a meaningful way without broaching topics you’d rather avoid?

Try asking them questions about their life. Most people are flattered by being asked about themselves, and it will give you a chance to learn more about who they are outside of the limited picture you have of them. There are so many things you can learn about a person that don’t involve politics or religion.

Use (thoughtful) bribery

If you’re anticipating tension, offering small, thoughtful gifts is a great way to break the ice. Bringing flowers is pretty typical, and you can certainly do that, but it might also be nice to buy more specific presents, like that book your mom said she’s been wanting or that record by your uncle’s favorite singer.

If your family is used to you being the one to start arguments, presents can also act as a kind of peace offering, a reassurance that you’re there because you want to spend quality time with them and have fun.

If all of this still isn’t enough

So you’ve tried everything listed above, but bad vibes still linger. What should you do? Before you reach for that second (or third) drink, do something a little more productive (and better for your health, tbh): Give yourself credit for trying.

If someone else in the family can’t put aside their issues for one night, that’s their bad. Try to move on, enjoy the food and the rest of the company and daydream about how you’ll spend the holiday differently next year — island getaway, anyone?