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

Tip #4: Don’t Take the Bait

Is there a relative who always gets a rise out of you? Decide that it takes two to tango and don’t engage with them.  Make an executive decision not to talk about politics with Grandpa anymore, gently change the subject when your cousin asks why you’re still single, or leave the room when Uncle Larry brings up the midterm elections.

Tip #5: Don’t Make a Day of it

If you’re hosting, consider serving dinner later, like 6pm, and ask people to arrive equivalently late, say, around 4pm.  Then you only have to get through 5-6 hours rather than an entire day.  

See also: Family Coming Into Town? Don't Stress Out!


If you’re a guest and dread being at your sister’s house all day, justify showing up late (or leaving early) by doing something socially acceptable from Tip #1, like volunteering at the local hospital or hitting the stores early, making it clear you’re looking for the perfect Christmas present for your sister’s children.  Or just make it known ahead of time that you’ll be late or have to leave early - no explanation needed.

Tip #6: Bring a Friend

If your family errs on the side of good behavior when there’s a stranger among them, bring one. A work friend with family far away, your friendly French neighbor who wants to try a real American Thanksgiving, or another fresh face may improve your family’s conduct. Needless to say, if your family would let it all hang out even if the Queen were coming, spare your friend the ordeal.

Tip #7: Plan a Post-Thanksgiving Gathering with Friends

Before Thanksgiving weekend, plan a night out (or a night in - whatever your style) with your friends for the week directly following Thanksgiving.  Plan to debrief, tell all the crazy stories, and shake your heads in disbelief together.  That way, you’ll experience the Thanksgiving day political diatribes, drunken singing, and other ridiculousness not as a migraine the the making, but as fodder for your night out.

After it’s all over, congratulate yourself on being functional.  You may not be able to choose your family, but you can choose a shrewd strategy or two to keep you sane.  With some practice, you may even consider showing up for the next family gathering.

How will you make it through Thanksgiving? Post your survival strategies in the Comments section below or on the Savvy Psychologist's Facebook page.>


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.