FAMILY
4:45 am
Wed November 21, 2012

Tips for Navigating Your Family Thanksgiving

How can you navigate the stress that comes with a big family gathering like Thanksgiving? WGBH’s Carrie English spoke to Cambridge psychotherapist Dr. Robin Ohringer.

Q: I find that I always look forward so much to Thanksgiving, then get disappointed. Why is that?

A: First of all, remember that all of those idealized holiday dinners pictured in movies and on television are fantasy. In real life we all have an impossible to get along with family member, a family member who doesn't stop talking, a family member who drinks too much and says and does things everyone regrets, etc. If there has been a recent loss, holidays bring up all the old memories of having that person there, and are full of sadness. So try to have realistic expectations of any holiday.

Q: Do you have any tips for getting your family to behave better?

A: Help everyone behave better by inviting a friend or co-worker (or student with no local family) to join you for the holiday. Not only will you be preventing someone from spending a lonely day, the presence of a new person will encourage family members to leave their old and fixed ways of relating. From a family systems perspective, you are putting new information into the system, which has the possibility of changing how the whole system relates.

Q: What if inviting another person isn’t possible?

A: Instead of just cooking and eating the same meal, add some new activities to the day. Go see the football game at the local high school or  serve patrons at a nearby homeless shelter or  church. Get up and be active; take a walk between dinner and desert. If you are the host of a holiday meal, assign family members tasks that may get family members who don't usually spend time together a shared activity; simple and creative things like cutting and arranging raw vegetables and dip, or making place cards for the table.

Q: What should you do to avoid difficult conversations, like politics?

Instead of discussing potentially divisive subjects, have older members of the family share family history. Or make up a new tradition (things like going around the table and saying what you are thankful for this year, etc). Families with young children are generally able to deflect potential troublesome relating by focusing on the kids. For kids, the holiday is still new and exciting. Start traditions for the young members of the family (in mine the children always got chocolate turkeys at their place settings). Make music together, if you have one or more musicians in the group.

Q: What can I do to minimize the tension that I feel?

Try to remind yourself ahead of time that you are now an adult with a life of your own, and that you don't have to respond to your (brother, sister, mother, etc) the way you did when you were 6-16. Maybe if you try a new way of responding, your family member will also be able to leave the troublesome patterns of the past.

Remember to use mindfulness at the beginning and throughout the day. If you feel stressed, take five or so long slow, deep breaths. Find a private place (there's always the bathroom) and close your eyes and imagine yourself in a place in nature where you feel calm. Just envisioning the sounds and smells of that place can provide some instant destressing. And always, at the beginning and end of the day, find something to be thankful for.