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How to Handle Thanksgiving with Your Family: Tips From a Therapist

The time leading up to and following holidays are typically very busy for individual, couples, and family therapy. No family is perfect; and to some extent all families have a level of dysfunction. Then, you add a global pandemic, political debates surrounding an upcoming election, and general overwhelm that has plagued 2020. So, no wonder some of the most pressing issues people seek counselling for involve boundaries and handling family, especially surrounding holidays such as Thanksgiving, especially in our current climate.

So, if you find yourself feeling a little tense around family (or anyone for that matter) check out these tips from therapists to help you handle family stress and Thanksgiving with your family. 

Every person has stuff, and every family has stuff. 

This year’s Thanksgiving recipe for stress includes political debates, differing COVID comfort levels, the same old stories, undealt with tension of previous years, cooped up kids, someone being hangry, and unrealistic expectations. No wonder families only do this once a year!

Whatever we look for we will find. If we look for ways a family member annoys us or is out to get us, we will find it. But, if we look for ways they are trying to connect–albeit in their own way–we will find it, too. And that can soften our perspective and our hearts towards them. 

It may feel like there is no changing family dynamics, boundaries, or stress this holiday. But, what if you could choose how you and your spouse respond –rather than react– to some of the potential challenges that come with family get-togethers?

Dr. Greg Smalley, Vice President of Marriage at Focus on the Family recommends trying some of these ideas:

Choose to respond with grace

Respond rather than react. You can’t control your family, but you can control how you respond to the things they say or do. The best time to think about how you’ll respond is before it happens. Prevention is the best plan! 

Think of it this way: You already have an idea of potential comments that family members may make. Afterall it is your family. What if you responded to those comments with grace? 

But what does that practically look like? Here’s a nugget of ancient wisdom: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). You can’t just pretend everything is fine, but imagine the difference you could make by choosing grace instead of hurtful remarks. Sometimes you can play out what you could say in a respectful way. Whereas sometimes it’s best to change the subject or not to say anything at all. 

Decide how to deal with snarky comments and criticisms

“Do not take to heart all the things that people say” (Ecclesiastes 7:21). Have you ever felt it’s easier to talk to strangers than family? Maybe it’s because families rely on a sort of “shorthand” — we reference events (“Remember the time?”) or tell old stories to make a point but we forget that there is a person behind the story and each person has different memories and emotions associated with that event. Not all those emotions are positive. How will you respond when someone tells a story about you? When they make light of something that hurt you deeply? You can return the hurt or you can respond with logic and fact. It’s also OK to say, “That’s enough.” And remember that you don’t have to jump into the middle of an argument. Acknowledge what is being said but refuse to be baited into a dispute.

Find a safe place

Give yourself permission to take a break. If the situation feels too intense or overwhelming, remember you have options. Take a break. Go to another room. Call a friend. Go for a walk.Talk to your favorite cousin. It’s healthy to retreat and refresh. You’ll find dealing with tough situations is easier after you’ve taken time to rest.

Plan to support your spouse

You may look forward to seeing your family. Your spouse might feel different because of past interactions or hurtful comments. Talk with your spouse to learn how they feel about spending Thanksgiving with your family. Are there concerns? How will you support your spouse when the conversation turns critical? Can you set healthy boundaries with family? Remember your relationship with your spouse takes priority and you may need to gently remind your extended family of that fact.

Keep it short and sweet

If you know you’re walking into a difficult situation or can’t get out of family plans, find a way to minimize your time with them. Make other plans (maybe even with your spouse’s family) that give you enough wiggle room to arrive late or leave early. Limiting time with extended family doesn’t mean you love them any less. It says you value the relationships enough to give them your very best during the time spent together.

Choose to be Thankful

It’s OK to feel nervous about spending time with relatives. But you can enjoy time together and avoid digging out from family friction by making wise decisions about how you deal with stress and support your spouse. 

We cannot control what family members say or do, but we can control how we respond and our perspective. Just as we can choose how we respond, our tone, body language, what we say and what we do not say, we can choose thankfulness and gratitude. Writing down what we are grateful or thankful for can be very helpful in shifting perspective. Another helpful perspective shift can be in how we view each family member. 

Whatever we look for we will find. If we look for ways a family member annoys us or is out to get us, we will find it. But, if we look for ways they are trying to connect–albeit in their own way–we will find it, too. And that can soften our perspective and our hearts towards them. 

And that can soften our perspective and our hearts towards them. See the next article on handling family stress:

How to Have a Less Anxious Thanksgiving with Your Family: Tips from a Therapist

Observing your family with curiosity can help you calm down.

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