There : that harmonious American family happily sitting around the turkey-laden table. See them on the covers of women’s magazines. See them in ads for tablecloths and centerpieces. See them on television and at the movies. Doesn’t that family just make you crazy?
Actually, that image of that perfect family can make you crazy, according to many leading family psychologists.
Dr. Morton Orman, author of The Fourteen Day Stress Cure, says that one of the leading stressors of Thanksgiving is having unrealistic expectations about how a “normal” family acts. He and other experts believe that you are much better off lowering your expectations about how your own family will behave at Thanksgiving. Because every family is unique, not perfect, it’s a mistake to buy into the “perfect family” ideal. It’s particularly bad if you combine that ideal with memories of “perfect Thanksgivings (that never really happened). If you do this, you will only create impossible expectations doomed to failure and disappointment.
Dr. William Pittman, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist, says that family ties may be the tightest at Thanksgiving but so are family tensions. Holidays are the peak time for family violence, visits to emergency rooms, and crises for those undergoing psychological treatment
“Few times during the year are more stressful than the holidays,” Dr. Linda Andrews, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, believes. “When people are under stress, they often resort to their worst habits.”
Does your family include a few alcoholics and loudmouths? Are family members as divided as the USA itself into blue and red states so that certain discussions become shouting matches? Are you combining sets of in-laws of different religions and backgrounds with different ideas about how Thanksgiving dinner should be cooked, served and eaten? Do you have vegetarians who hate meals that center around dead animals? Does the guest list include adult women who compete in the areas of cooking, cleaning, decorating, and children’s achievements? Are ex-spouses trying to share Thanksgiving for the sake of their children? Normal families deal with these issues every year at Thanksgiving. Here are tips from family therapists and other experts for your normal family to get through the day in peace:
- Spend the holiday in a public place.
Give the family cooks a break by moving Thanksgiving to a restaurant. Most people behave better in a public place. This maneuver also gives people the right to leave when they want to.
Likewise, have the entire extended family meet at a resort for the weekend instead of staying at family members’ houses. It’s less work and more fun. When tensions build, people can retreat to the privacy of their rooms.
If you cannot afford to this strategy, try inviting some friends to your Thanksgiving. Family members are less likely to act up in front of outsiders.
- If you are the host, don’t exhaust yourself before Thanksgiving dinner.
Right before the holidays, furniture and rug sales always go up. Many family members, especially siblings, are in competition over issues like who has the best and cleanest house, who is the best cook, etc. If you are hosting Thanksgiving, don’t get into this kind of competitiveness: it will only exhaust you and ruin your holiday. It is okay to cut corners. Include ready-made foods along with homemade ones, close off messy rooms, and accept help in the kitchen. Your relaxed mood will set the tone of the gathering.
- Spend time and energy on planning entertainment.
Thanksgiving is the slowest afternoon of the year, says Dr. William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. The parade, the turkey, the football games and lethargy caused by overeating make it a long boring time, especially for children. Families get “cabin fever” and tensions arise.
Let the dinner end by early afternoon so that people can go to a movie or take a walk, if they desire. Give children the freedom to play outside; allow teenagers to go out by themselves. Bundle up and go look at store windows together. Have board games and other entertainment available.
- Have a clever seating arrangement.
Try using place cards to assign seats so that you can separate people who do not get along. Don’t seat family members who have been feuding for years next to each other.
Family therapist Dr. Tina Tessina suggests assigning a “handler” to each family troublemaker. The diplomat’s job is to smooth over the troublemaker’s nasty remarks, water down an imbiber’s drinks, etc.
- Have a strategy if things get out of hand.
There is an old axiom in etiquette books: treat family members like friends, and treat friends like family. Few people do this. Those who would never insult a friend often feel free to make unkind remarks to family members. This is how things get out of control at Thanksgiving dinners.
Carol Rubin, writing in Psychology Today, says to watch out for the following signs that a fight is getting out of hand: issues proliferate, attacks become personal, people call each other names, and more and more family members get involved in the fray. Try changing the subject before an argument escalates. Use humor to diffuse a situation or try remaining silent if you are attacked. If necessary, get up and leave the table.
Dr. Nick Stinnet, a professor of Family Studies at the University of Alabama, says that family gatherings are emotionally loaded, potential minefields.
By having a strategy to deal with problems, you may find that you actually enjoy Thanksgiving this year. At the least, the holiday will prove to be much better than you expected.