The barbs exchanged between family members in director Jodie Foster’s 1995 classic, Home for the Holidays, perfectly capture why many of us dread returning to the nest. One of the film’s most prickly scenes takes place between artsy protagonist Claudia Larson (played by Holly Hunter) and her straight-laced sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson). In a vicious fight, Claudia yells: “You don’t know a thing about me!”, to which Joanne curtly replies: “Likewise, I'm sure.” Seething with contempt, Joanne gets up in Claudia’s face and cuttingly adds: “If I just met you on the street... if you gave me your phone number... I'd throw it away.” Later Claudia asks her date, Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott): “When you go home, do you look around and wonder: Who are these people? Where did I even come from?”
Going home for the holidays does often feel like visiting another planet — one that’s both uncomfortably odd and suffocatingly familiar. The pressure to be happy and have fun collide with the anticipation of fights, old wounds opening anew and personal boundaries getting crossed. “Most therapists will tell you that their busiest time of the year is from November first until early January and it’s largely attributable to holiday stress from the social expectations this season brings,” Ty Tashiro, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward and Why That's Awesome, told Thrive.
To help you better navigate your upcoming family get-together, we consulted five experts who provided foolproof tips on how to keep the peace, anchor yourself in gratitude, and remember your love for your family, even when they disappoint you.
Postpone talk of politics
The urge to talk about the midterm election results will likely be a difficult one to resist, but it could spoil and truncate your time with family by as much as 50 minutes. A study in the journal Science earlier this year revealed that Thanksgiving dinners attended by opposing-party members were 30 to 50 minutes shorter than same-party dinners in 2016. (Nationwide, that accounted for a whopping 34 million hours lost with loved ones.) Lead author Keith Chen, Ph.D., an associate professor of economics at UCLA, attributes the results to “one of the most contentious elections of all time,” he says. “Both sides were primed to hate the other.” Findings from his forthcoming study, he says, suggest that “dinner civility in 2017 seems to have recovered more than half of its losses,” which means we’ve either learned to reconcile our differences (unlikely) or shelve political discussions altogether.
“Politics are predictably explosive these days because it’s so tethered to our identities, so avoid it if you can,” Tashiro advises. Psychologist Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., author of the forthcoming book, I Love You But I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect Your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World, based on her popular podcast of the same name, agrees: "Don’t talk about politics and don’t think you’re going to change anybody’s mind.” She should know. The liberal Democrat has been married to the National Review’s senior editor and conservative columnist Richard Brookhiser for 38 years. “We agree about nothing politically, but the fact is that we have everything else in common.”
Nip political discourse in the bud
Safer believes it’s best to nip escalating debates in the bud: “Take the initiative,” she says. “In your best therapeutic voice, say, ‘Let’s keep politics out of Thanksgiving. Let’s be thankful for what we have and focus on what we do have in common.” She thinks hosts can set the expectation at the outset of the gathering by reminding everyone to keep hot-button issues off the table. If someone is belligerent and won’t let an issue lie, Tashiro recommends defusing the intensity of the emotion by saying in a calm tone, “I understand that this is an important issue for you, but I’d rather not discuss politics tonight in the interest of all of us having a good time.”
Find common ground
If someone can’t rein in their fiery commentaries, Dorimar Morales, L.C.S.W., a clinician who specializes in family therapy at New York City’s Ackerman Institute for the Family, urges us to remember: “You are in control of your actions and your reactions and what you do with what you receive.” Safer suggests that as an act of goodwill, make it a priority to connect with this person whose views are anathema to yours. “Make it a value that you’re going to try and forge a real connection with somebody who disagrees with you,” she says. “Try to think about listening more than talking.” By listening closely you can get at the fundamental principles underlying their beliefs, which can lead you to common ground. For example, when your mother prattles on about the benefits of Trump’s tax policies, you might hear the undergirding desire you both share — a desire for economic security. You both have different ideas about how you’d like to accomplish that, but ultimately, you both want the same thing. Morales adds: “We connect and relate better to each other when we are trying to understand our differences.”
Remember: your beliefs are not the sum total of who you are
Safer emphasizes: “Our beliefs are a part of us, an important part, but they’re not all of us.” In fact, she says it’s critical to remember that “not everybody who has the same politics as you is a good or generous person.” To drive home the point, she recalls being diagnosed with a curable form of leukemia, noting that the only person who visited her in the hospital was her next door neighbor — a Trump-supporting pro-lifer. “Many of my friends who agree with me politically all the way down the line didn’t come.” As good a reminder as any to try to see the good in people despite their beliefs.
Dealing with non-political tension
Politics may generate the most heated emotions this Thanksgiving, but large-scale family get-togethers also seem to inspire us to judge our nearest and dearest in all areas of life. Whether it’s a disdainful glance or a verbalized critique, our experts offer advice on how to handle affronts related to your life choices with equanimity and grace.
Carnivores and vegans: plan ahead
Whether your Team Vegan or Team Carnivore, things get tricky when a host’s spread doesn’t align with your dietary habits. Morales says it’s imperative that you keep your expectations in check: You can’t expect the entire menu to be tailored to your needs. She suggests delicately broaching the topic with your host ahead of time. You can even be self-deprecating about it, she says. You might say: “As you know, I’ve been hijacked by plant-eaters. Do you mind if I bring a few meat-free dishes to the feast?” Similarly, Tashiro suggests reminding people at the outset about how hard the host worked. For instance, he suggests you might say: “My sister worked really hard on making us this meal and may be sensitive about critical comments. I know we all have different dietary preferences, but let’s be supportive of her.” If you’re hosting a vegan meal and someone makes a crack at the Tofurkey you’ve labored over, Tashiro urges you to steer clear of an explosive lash-out: “To defuse the situation, you can say, ‘Oh, that actually hurts my feelings because I worked so hard and wanted you to enjoy it.’” The offender will likely feel bad and apologize. Morales says it’s important to remember that the meal is not the centerpiece of the holiday, it’s fundamentally about spending time together and giving thanks.
Feel your parenting being criticized? Keep your cool
A popular pastime in American families is to roll a running commentary about how our relatives and friends poorly parent their children. A frequent critique older generations of parents hurl at younger ones is “you’re spoiling your child!” First, says Tashiro, “If you think about the intent behind someone’s behaviors or actions, it circumvents a lot of hurtful comments.” Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, agrees, adding that family generally want what’s best for you, even if they go about it clumsily or indelicately. Try Morales’s practical approach to keeping conflicts at bay: “Say, ‘I know you’ve had a lot of experience with childrearing, and I appreciate your feedback, but I need to make my own decisions.’” If they’ve lobbed their criticism at you in front of your child, you can add: “In the future, please give me your opinion in private, otherwise it’s confusing for the kid.” Hendriksen says it’s also helpful to affirm your values internally as a form of self-affirmation. “You might say to yourself, ‘My child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate,’ or ‘My child is acting out because she’s tired and overwhelmed by all my family members.’”
If you’re getting badgered for being single or child-free, say this
The questions that swirl around your relationship status when you reach a certain age can be overwhelming. Why aren’t you married? Haven’t you met anyone? Don’t you want to have kids? If you’re enjoying your singledom, Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., an academic affiliate at the University of California, Santa Barbara who’s written several celebratory books on the topic, including Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After, says to stand up for yourself: “Don’t go along with other people’s assumptions that if you are sad and a target for pity” — instead, tell them about the great things going on in your life. The same goes for your decision to not have children. When probed about your childlessness, DePaulo suggests being direct: “These decisions are so personal, don’t you think?” Or try some humor, especially if it’s self-deprecating, says Tashiro. It can be a useful tool for defusing a tense situation. Whatever works for you, but aim to lighten the mood and softly register the inappropriateness of the questions.
Morales says you can almost tackle any relationship issue that arises with VCR, which stands for Validate, Challenge, and Request, an approach a clinical psychologist she works with prescribes to clients: “Validate the person’s point of you so they feel heard; let them know you don’t agree; and make a request for them to honor your feelings,” all in an steady, calm voice. For example, if a relative is taking shots at your partner, you could say: “I hear you that you have issues with Jim and your opinion is important to me (validate), but I don’t agree with your point of view (challenge) and it’s important to me that you remain respectful of us (request).”
When drama is all but inevitable
If you know in advance that your family meet-up will be fraught and painful no matter how many positive tips you attempt to employ, Hendriksen suggests doing these six things.
Start Thanksgivings later
If you’re hosting, have people arrive later — around 4 or 5 p.m., rather than 2 or 3 p.m. as is customary. “Then you only have to get through four or five hours rather than the entire day,” she says.
Arrive late for a cause
You can justify showing up late, Hendriksen says, if you do it for a socially acceptable reason like volunteering at a homeless shelter or local hospital. “Doing something in the spirit of Thanksgiving would be hard for them to criticize.” Plus, studies indicate that volunteering positively correlates with improved mental and physical health.
Bring a friend
If your family is less inclined to show their ugliness in the presence of strangers, bringing a friend might help keep everybody in line: “If your family would let it all hang out even if Queen Elizabeth showed up,” however, says Hendriksen, then skip it, “because no one will have a good time.”
Find a like-minded relative to hang with
If you have a family member who shares your sense of things, you can look out for one another and come to each other’s rescue when conversations get thorny. Maybe your cousin can swoop in when your uncle starts challenging you about the existence of climate change, and ask for your help in the kitchen.
Don’t serve alcohol
“A really easy way to cull any drunken behavior is to just not serve booze,” Hendriksen suggests, especially if you have family members who overdrink and become belligerent.
Plan a post-Thanksgiving brunch with friends
Build in a day of self-care after the tension-high affair by meeting up with close friends to swap stories about family insanities. That way, when crazy stuff goes down during the festivities, you can catalogue it for a later laugh (or gasp) with a tight circle of friends.