How to Deal With Difficult Family on Thanksgiving

Would you like a thinly disguised insult with your turkey?  An exasperating political discussion with your pumpkin pie?  Family gatherings are hard enough without the Rockwellian pressure of Thanksgiving.  Have no fear. Savvy Psychologist has 7 tips to get you through with your sanity (mostly) intact.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #47

A wise person once said “dysfunctional family is redundant.”  I know my extended family includes its share of characters and I’m sure yours does, too.  

You spend most of the year (hopefully) insulated from family shenanigans, but when everyone from loudmouth Uncle Milt to judgy cousin Carrie is devouring turkey around your dining room table, it can get a little dicey.  

To that end, here are 7 tips for dealing with difficult family members on Thanksgiving (or at any family gathering, for that matter):

Tip #1: Practice Socially Acceptable Avoidance

I don’t usually advocate for avoidance, but if it’s just to get you through the holiday weekend, I’ll cut you yards of slack.  Socially acceptable ways to get out of the house entirely to avoid family are to volunteer at a community Thanksgiving for the less fortunate, run a turkey trot 5K, or even get started on your holiday shopping (be sure to tell family you’re looking for presents for them).  

If you must stick around, focus on judiciously avoiding the one or two people you know you’ll have a hard time with.  When Aunt Dottie sets her sights on you, go see if folks in the kitchen need a hand, offer to head out for more ice, or round up a group for a brisk walk and get out of the house.  In the end, do whatever works.  Again, avoidance doesn’t work in the long run, but used wisely, it can get you safely through until it’s time for pumpkin pie.

Tip #2: Find a Buddy

Find a like-minded relative (you’ll spot her also trying to suppress eye rolls) and agree to look out for one another.  For example, rescue your cousin from getting cornered by Uncle Rick (after all, you really need help with these mashed potatoes); in return, ask her to suddenly, urgently need your assistance when your sister tries to ask you for money.

Tip #3: You Don’t Have to Serve Booze

A straightforward, though perhaps controversial, method to cull the drunken behavior is not to serve alcohol.  You run the risk of Uncle Milt heading off to the liquor store for a bottle of Jack, but your message will be clear.

If you’re feeling brave, you could also talk to the usual suspect beforehand.  Explain that you’d love to celebrate Thanksgiving with him or her, but the person they become when they’re drinking is simply not welcome.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.