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8 ways to survive family drama this Thanksgiving

By Jake Beardslee · November 21, 2023

In brief…

  • Family tensions frequently come out over holiday gatherings when everyone is together
  • Being prepared with coping strategies is key - set boundaries, take a walk when needed
  • It helps to recognize when you start reacting and consciously pull back
  • The goal is to avoid getting hooked into dysfunctional family conflicts
Family clashes often erupt during holiday gatherings; being mentally prepared with coping mechanisms can help individuals avoid getting entangled in heated dynamics.  Nicole Michalou/Pexels

As families come together this Thanksgiving, simmering tensions and unresolved issues often boil over amidst the food and festivities. “All it takes is one look, one complaint, or that one comment to set off a conflict the family knows all too well,” says family therapist Vienna Pharaon to CNBC News. She explains that families tend to “dance around everything that’s unresolved over and over again,” because despite past hurts, there is still an expectation that these relationships continue.

No matter how much personal growth someone has made, “family just has a way of getting to the pain point and pressing it,” Pharaon notes. People often feel frustrated that their improvements are not acknowledged by family members unwilling to change their minds. With some preparation and self-soothing techniques, however, individuals can better manage family dynamics.

  1. Mentally prepare for personality clashes.
    Remember that your family members are unlikely to change - expect the usual troublemakers.

  2. Have a canned response ready. Plan a neutral reply to inflammatory comments that won’t add fuel to the fire.

  3. Take some “me time.” Do something relaxing like meditating before the big meal. It will help you stay calm.

  4. Find a family ally. Quietly ask a sibling or partner to help redirect conversation if needed.

  5. Set some ground rules. Politely request avoiding certain topics or leave after a set time.

  6. Distance yourself. If tensions flare up, step away for a bit or go for a quick walk.

  7. Directly but calmly disengage. If you get upset, clearly state you won’t discuss it further.

  8. Don’t get hooked. Recognize when you’re getting reactive and consciously pull back.

As Pharaon notes, “Think about your part in that dance” of family dysfunction. The main thing is not to get swept up in it. Recognizing when you start to get pulled in and consciously extracting yourself can prevent holiday gatherings from turning into verbal cage matches.