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How To Outsmart Family Tensions at the Thanksgiving Table

Experts share simple ways to smooth ruff led feathers and relish all the joy of the holiday.

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From the tender turkey to the yummy stuffing to the true main course of gratitude itself, there’s so much to savor this holiday — everything, that is, except the often inevitable side dish of family tensions. It’s no wonder just thinking about the big day gives you mixed feelings. And you’re not alone in your anxiety: A lot of families have quarrels during the holiday season, owing to everything from political differences to lingering grudges.

“Between pacifying difficult in-laws and defusing arguments among adult siblings, the onus is often on women to play peacemaker, like emotional janitors picking up after everyone else’s needs, while ignoring their own,” says psychologist Sherrie Campbell, PhD, author of But It’s Your Family. “Because of such fraught family dynamics, the holidays often feel more like an obligation than a celebration.”

Luckily, there are simple steps we can take to foster bonds and enjoy a peaceful get-together, encourages psychologist Lisa Damour, PhD, author of Untangled and the forthcoming The Emotional Lives of Teenagers. “If we have complicated relatives, we can reduce overall stress and avoid awkward interactions by doing things like creating boundaries or planning distracting activities, such as playing a game together.” Just read on for easy ways to sidestep common family tension triggers and reap all the cheer, happiness and togetherness this holiday has to offer.

The tension: Nosy relatives

There are certain things you can count on in life: The sun rises in the east and your aunt will always ask you intrusive questions at the holiday table. While it’s no surprise when she inquires why you’re not dating anyone after your divorce, the question still stings. Says Campbell, “We have so much history with family, it’s often hard to know how to respond without frustration.”

The tamer: Be a loving ‘bore’.

When personal questions knock you off balance, pretend you’re a “gray rock.” “Simply be the most boring person in the room,” says Campbell. “For example, you might say, ‘I so appreciate your interest, and when I’m ready to talk about it, I will. I know you can understand.’ Then pivot back to them by asking about their recent vacation or favorite hobby.” By including the phrase, “I know you can understand,” you’re implying that you have faith in them to honor your needs, and they’ll often respond positively as a result. In other words, it’s easy to be a loving “gray rock” at family gatherings by being kind yet firm.

The tension: Old grudges

As you prepare to host the holiday, you discover that your estranged sister-in-law plans to attend. I’m not ready to forgive her, you think, as you brace for an awkward encounter. “Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting,” says minister Traci Smith, author of Faithful Families. “Rather, it’s letting go of pain, so you can move forward.”

The tamer: Forgive through ritual.

Symbolic gestures make it easier to let go of hurt. “Ritual transforms the vague idea of releasing a grudge into something real,” says Smith. “If you want to let go of resentment, you might write a letter you never send forgiving someone for the sake of your well-being. Or you might whisper an intention for your gathering like, ‘May this home be one of peace.’” Smith sometimes lights a dollar-store candle and sprinkles glitter on it as she says a prayer. “The glitter makes it playful—something often missing when we’re stressed that lets us acknowledge a fresh start.”

The tension: Political discord

You can’t help but worry about relatives of different political stripes sniping at each other. “It’s hard to give each other the benefit of the doubt,” says Sarah Stewart Holland, co-author of Now What?: How to Move Forward When We’re Divided (About Basically Everything). “But the key is that we’re not trying to convince each other — we’re trying to understand each other.”

The tamer: ‘Narrate’ your feelings.

To sidestep squabbles, act like an objective observer, urges Stewart Holland. “You might say, ‘I’m getting upset, and I see you are too. I’ve learned a lot from our discussion, but I need a break.’” Simply saying aloud what we often leave as subtext eases tensions. Another strategy is tapping into your shared history. “You could say, ‘Isn’t it interesting that we grew up in the same family, but we disagree about X?’” This is a gentle reminder of just how much you have in common. Indeed, just saying, “I don’t agree with you, but I respect your values,” signals that your relationship transcends differences of opinion.

The tension: Being the subject of criticism

You typically get along with your mother-in-law, but you’re worried she’s going to resent your plans to spend Christmas with your family instead of with hers. Maybe we should just agree to have the holidays at her house again this year, you sigh. “I see a lot of women sacrifice their own family to prioritize their in-laws,” observes Campbell. “When we’re trying to please everyone at the holidays, we often feel like the bad guy no matter what we do.”

The tamer: Honor your values

Boundaries are opportunities to let someone show you they respect your needs, says Campbell. Just be clear, as in, “We’re having Thanksgiving with you and Christmas with my family, so it’s fair for everyone.” It’s hard to argue when you focus on values like fairness. In the end, taming tension is as much about what we do as what we say, adds Damour. “Consider taking a walk together or playing a game: When we’re a team, it’s easier to focus on what matters most this holiday.”

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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