mental health

6 Tips for Navigating a Tense Thanksgiving Dinner, According to Family Therapist

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Thanksgiving Day is notorious for food, football and family feuds. 

Whatever topic will trigger conflict — be it the recent midterms or your relationships status — is sure to be lobbed at you mid-bite. 

"All it takes is one look, one complaint, or that one comment to set off a conflict the family knows all too well," says Vienna Pharaon, a family therapist and author of the upcoming book "The Origins of You."

'Family just has a way of getting to the pain point and pressing it'

There is a lot of "unresolved pain" that originates in families and then is reactivated during these rare moments when everyone is together, Pharaon says.

Resentments and disappointments can be carried from generation to generation.

"Families are these unique relationships that, despite the passing of pain, there is still the expectation that the relationships continue to be maintained," Pharaon says.

"So people dance around everything that's unresolved over and over again, often trying to put on a happy or cordial face, until the pain finds a way to rear its head, which it will." 

Families also have a way of undermining any growth or changes you've made over the last year, which can be endlessly frustrating.

"No matter how much you work on things in therapy, or how much healing or growth you've had during the year, family just has a way of getting to the pain point and pressing it," she says. 

You might feel like the person you've become, the person you are around your friends during your day-to-day life, isn't being acknowledged or accepted. 

If your family Thanksgiving feels more like a figurative cage match, there are ways to steady yourself before arriving and self-soothe at the dinner table.

Here are 4 things to do before dinner

"Prepare yourself for who you know your family to be, not who you hope they will be," Pharaon says. 

Think about how these meals have gone, historically, instead of idealizing how you think they should go. 

1. Cook up a canned answer 

You likely know exactly what is going to set you off, so prepare a response that lets you engage without accelerating the conflict. 

"Can you expect a certain uncle to make a comment that's going to ignite something within you?" Pharaon says. "Plan for how you'll respond. What's going to offer you the most amount of peace in this experience? Whatever that answer is, build around that." 

Remember, there is likely no point in arguing. 

"Getting hooked into the chaos is not healing," she says. "Trying to change a person's mind who is committed to not changing is a waste of your energy and peace." 

2. Do something relaxing beforehand 

Take some time to yourself before heading over, says Brittany Stewart, a family therapist at Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver, Colorado.

"Do whatever feels like it regulates your nervous system," she says. "Like going for a walk, meditating, or taking a shower." 

Going into the meal with a calm mind can lengthen your fuse. 

3. Enlist the help of a sibling

Prior to arriving, ask a sibling or partner for support should conflict arise, Steward suggests.

Some ways to do this include asking:

  • Could you back me up if I say we can't talk about that?
  • Can you help by introducing a new topic?
  • There might be a time where I get overwhelmed and want to go and take a walk — can you go on a walk with me?

You can even come up with a code word or gesture which signals that you need to step away or you need someone to interject. 

4. Set a boundary 

Call your family ahead of time and vocalize what exact topic you'd like to avoid, Stewart says. 

An example script she gives is: 

"Hey I'm really excited to see you. I've been looking forward to having time with everyone. I'd really love if we didn't talk about the election. I'd love to hear what's happening in your life. I'd love for us to connect around other things in our lives." 

You can also set a time boundary if you feel like that is what's best for your own health.

"Let your family know, 'Hey we are here until 8 p.m. tonight and then we'll have to leave at that time,'" she says. 

2 ways to self-soothe during dinner

Regardless of the boundaries you set or the back-up you procure, family might still push your buttons. 

That's why it's important to have tools in the moment that can help you remain calm and not escalate an argument. 

1. Take a walk

Think of the acts that help you regulate your emotions on a daily basis. Maybe it's going on a walk or quickly texting a friend. If you can't get up and leave, practice doing some breath work or mediation. 

"Take care of yourself first," Pharaon says. "Don't worry too much about managing the emotional experience of others. I know, easier said than done when it's a role you've taken on your entire life, but do your best to tune into yourself and care for you in the best way you can." 

2. Tell them you won't engage 

Sometimes we tip-toe around our emotions or needs. But, addressing them head-on might be more effective. If a topic triggers you, say something, Pharaon says.

"If things start to get tense you can say the following: 'This isn't going anywhere productive, I'm going for a walk. We're clearly upset, I'm done having this conversation. I feel differently than you do; thanks for sharing your opinion but I don't agree. I'm not interested in arguing.'" 

If the conversation continues, excuse yourself to get a drink or some air. 

"When things are unresolved in a family system, there's a dysfunctional dance that likes to take place," Pharaon says. "Think about your part in that dance." 

Visualize what is going to happen and the moment during which you usually get pulled in. Then, imagine pulling yourself back out of it. Keep this thought in your head before and at the meal.

It can help remind you how not to get swept away in the yearly smackdown.

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