Whether it’s a disagreement with the in-laws or a longtime family feud, Thanksgiving doesn’t always make you want to give thanks.
For many families, Thanksgiving isn’t the picture-perfect occasion featured in stuffing commercials or in holiday movies. The season can bring boiling family tension to the surface, especially when you add in wine, bad weather, and travel woes.
Dealing with family stress over Thanksgiving doesn’t have to derail your holiday spirt. Here are some tips to help you deal with family stress on Turkey Day:
1. Get out of your persona. Most of us have personas that we play out within our lives, particularly within our families and our most intimate relationships. Your persona is likely an old role you practiced even in childhood, and it usually serves some purpose, whether it’s to get attention, unleash stress, or simply make your voice heard.
Even if you are middle-aged or beyond, you might find yourself slipping into your childhood persona the second you get around your family. Suddenly, you turn into the always-forgotten middle child, or the bossy eldest, or the attention-seeking youngest. You probably won’t even be aware of it at first, but slowly you will begin to notice that you feel tense, angry, and on edge. Everyone and everything is getting on your nerves and you just want to scream. You know you are being slightly irrational, but you just can’t seem to get out of your own head.
Bu there is good news: You can get out of your persona, and you can refuse to engage with your family members when they are in their personas. For example, let’s say your younger sister is complaining to you because your mother made a nasty comment about her new haircut. Your hero persona might want you to fly into action and defend her, whether that’s to be rude to your mother in turn or simply gossip about her all night.
Here’s a better tactic: Tell your sister to go straight to the source (your mother) and tell her why the comment hurt her. It might feel strange to flip the script and refuse to engage in your usual roles, but in doing so, you can defuse the situation and take the adrenaline and the drama out of the day. By refusing to add fuel to the fire and staying true to yourself (rather than switching into your 12-year-old persona), you can prevent plenty of fights and stress. Best of all, you will be modeling healthy communication and family behavior for your own children.
2. Encourage moderation. Speaking of adding fuel to the fire, too much wine can be a death knell for an otherwise happy family event. While it might be tempting to turn to the bourdeaux when your in-laws start getting on your nerves or when you find out the potatoes have gone cold, but the end result will only be that you are that much more tired and volatile. Encourage your partner and other family members to do the same, and if you are hosting, make sure you offer plenty of non-alcoholic options for your guests.
3. Make gratitude the focus of the day. Learning to practice gratitude can be invaluable. When you greet the day with a spirit of gratitude and a commitment to being thankful rather than resentful, your mood and your relationships will improve tenfold. Start by keeping a gratitude journal and jotting down one thing (or more) you are grateful for each day. It could be something as priceless as your kids or something as simple as a warm cup of coffee on a cold winter’s morning. When you spend your day actively looking for things to be grateful for, you will be overwhelmed at all the amazing blessings you actually have in your life.
4. Give appreciations all day. Now that you are in a more grateful frame of mind, you can channel that energy outward and spread the love around. Start by sharing three appreciations with your spouse, whether it’s saying something like “You look sexy in those new jeans” or “You are so good with your nieces and nephews, they are lucky to have an awesome uncle like you!” Then, share then with the rest of your family as well. Whether it’s complimenting your always grouchy aunt on her new sweaty or telling your exhausted sister that she is a great mom, your words will go a long way in keeping the day positive, meaningful, and full of happiness.
5. Disengage when necessary. Even if you walk into Thanksgiving dinner with the best of intentions and do everything on this list (avoid drama, practice gratitude, share appreciations, and avoid the wine), you might find that someone in your family still finds a way to get under your skin, whether it’s a loudmouth uncle or a inebriated cousin. Sometimes the best thing you can do in these situations is lovingly disengage. Remove yourself from the situation if necessary, such as by playing with the kids in the backyard or by helping your grandmother in the kitchen.
Remind yourself that nothing you say about politics at your dinner table is going to change anyone’s mind, and that your focus should be on a peaceful, restful day with your family, rather than “winning” an argument with a family member on gun control or voter’s rights. After all, where’s the victory in ruining your mood and your holiday? Make happiness and togetherness your goal, rather than being right, and your day will go much smoother…and hopefully you will inspire your other family members to follow suit!