Therapists' Advice for Surviving Thanksgiving With a Dysfunctional Family

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Spending the holidays with your family isn't easy. And it becomes especially difficult if your family dynamics are a bit, well... dysfunctional. Maybe your cousin has a gambling problem. Maybe your aunt and your mom bicker. Every family's quirks are different. But if your family is brewing tension, with age and time apart, that tension can build.

You're already sharing the dinner table with a few wacky characters on Thanksgiving - you'd prefer for your psychological demons not to be among them. And as much as you'd love your family's dysfunction not to affect you, it inevitably does. You love these people! Despite how upsetting their problems and arguments can be, deep down you really just want to enjoy the holiday.

There are ways to make these situations less miserable - they could become bearable, even. You just have to get savvy with how you navigate them.

If you can book a therapy appointment prior to the holiday, please do. There is no shame in scheduling an appointment to tend to your mental health. You do it with your physical health all of the time! And sitting down for an hour with an expert who will listen might really help. A counselor can give you tips to mentally prepare for the day, coping skills to keep in your arsenal for in-the-moment support, and more. But if you don't have the resources to seek individualized help before the big day, here are some tips from real mental health experts to get you through.

Mentally Prepare Yourself

Don't jump from the frying pan into the fire. Practice some self-care before the holiday, so you're in the best mental state possible before entering the chaos. "A little bit of mental and emotional preparation can go a long way," says licensed therapist Lauren Dummit, LMFT, CSAT. "Keep your nervous system regulated so that you can calmly respond to stressors instead of impulsively reacting. It can be extremely helpful to practice some grounding techniques before interacting with family. This can include deep breathing exercises, meditation, mantra, yoga, massage, et cetera. A little exercise can also be an effective method to release tension."

Set Boundaries

Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, certified counselor and vice provost of Walden University's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, advises that you set clear boundaries - don't permit situations you aren't comfortable with. Communicate what these boundaries are in a way that's both specific and direct. Don't want someone to mention your recent divorce? You're allowed to say so. Don't feel comfortable discussing politics? Tell your family. A simple, "I would prefer we not talk about that right now," can be effective. If your request is not respected, give yourself permission to leave.

"You have the right to feel safe at the holiday and so do your other family members," Dixon-Saxon explains. "If someone's behavior compromises that for you, your partner, guests, or (most especially) your children, you have the right to leave their space or ask them to leave yours." Additionally, you can plan ahead of time to prevent situations before they happen. If one of your family members repeatedly oversteps your boundaries, talk to them ahead of time privately and in a safe setting.

Consider Your Lodging Arrangements

You don't have to take up your family's offer to stay in their guest room. A little space can do a whole lot of good. "Some of us, no matter how much we love our families, cannot deal with the added stress of staying overnight with them," Dixon-Saxon says. "Or you may not want to stay overnight because, no matter how old you are, you still feel somewhat like a child in your childhood home. Whatever your reason, consider staying with a sibling with whom you have a more egalitarian relationship or find hotel accommodations. You might even offer to split the cost of a hotel with guests if appropriate." She notes that explaining this decision to your family might be awkward, but people will adjust. "This just gives everyone an opportunity to retreat to their own space if needed."

Drop Big News Ahead of Time

"Prepare your guests in advance for anything that might impact the day negatively, and make sure they are comfortable attending once informed," Dixon-Saxon recommends. Dropping a bomb on someone in front of family and friends can heighten the discomfort that person feels receiving the information, simply because other people are witnessing it. Allow your family time to process the big news before you arrive.

Create Structure

Too much down time might not end well. Additionally, uncertainty can make emotions run high. Dixon-Saxon recommends making sure there is a structure to your family time. Make sure everyone knows when dinner starts, what they will be doing beforehand, and how long the event will be. "This can help manage some of the chaos, especially in a dysfunctional family," she says. "However, be warned; over-planning or being rigid with your plan can contribute to stress and frustration. Create a plan, but be flexible."

Let Go of Control

"Remember that you are not in control," says Dummit. "The only thing we are in control of is our own behavior." When things get crazy, remind yourself of that. You are not in charge of the outcome or of the actions of other people. Take a step back and observe instead of trying to intervene. "Sometimes, when things don't work out exactly as they are 'supposed to,' they actually turn out better - even if we can't see that until much later," Dummit explains.

Take Control Where You Can

Some things will inevitably be out of your hands. And that can be scary. But one way to ease the discomfort of this uncertainty is to find little things you can tweak to your liking. If you're hosting, you might arrange the seating charts in advance to eliminate some potential awkward seating scenarios. Maybe you bring a bottle of your favorite wine or your favorite dessert so you get to choose what you eat and drink. "Facilitating these small but tangible acts can prevent a lot of frustration during get-togethers," says DiMuzio.

Accept People for Who They Are

As much as you wish you could get your uncle to stop drinking or your aunt to stop with the snide comments, you can't. People are who they are. It's your choice to either love them or not - but you have to spend the holiday with them, regardless. "Nothing escalates family discord more than one member's obvious disapproval of another family member," explains Dixon-Saxon. "If you feel compelled to help your wayward brother with his life, take him out to dinner next Tuesday to discuss it." Or don't. But definitely don't bring it up during the holidays - choose to enjoy the family time and be neutral, instead.

Think Before You Speak

Katie DiMuzio LICSW, licensed clinician at therapist search startup, said that it's important not to react or respond to particularly piercing comments too quickly. "Take a deep breath before responding," DiMuzio says. "Reacting in the moment may cause you to say some things you regret. Before responding to what you perceive as a snide, condescending, or generally inappropriate remark or question from a family member, grant yourself a mental and emotional pause." To help promote mindfulness in this moment before speaking, DiMuzio advises to try diaphragmatic breathing. "Place your hand on your abdomen, just above your navel. Breathe in through your belly; you should feel your stomach inflate," she instructs. "Hold your breath for three seconds and release. Afterwards, you'll likely feel more refreshed and removed from the question or comment. As a result, you'll be able to answer in a calmer state of mind."

Take Breaks

"Remember to pause throughout the event, walk outside, take some deep breaths or call a supportive friend," says Dummit. "Reaching out to confidants that are familiar with your family dynamics and resentments so that you can vent if necessary can be extremely helpful." Whatever you need to do to take space from the situation, do it.

Focus on the Spirit of Giving

The holidays are about giving and sharing time with your loved ones. It can be helpful to shift your mindset accordingly. "Try to shift the focus from what you are getting or not getting to what you can give," advises Dummit. "Make it your goal to be of service whenever you can. Keep yourself busy by being as helpful as you can. This will not only keep you occupied, but it can also make you feel good about yourself, which will enhance your mood and help you reframe your perspective."

Ask People Questions

If you don't want your family to comment on your life, avoid talking about the details. Instead, focus on other people. "People generally love to talk about themselves," says Dummit. "Try to remain other-centered. When engaging in conversation, keep the focus on the other person, encouraging them to talk the exciting things going on in their lives. If the person is particularly negative, Thanksgiving can offer an opportunity for you to share with them what you appreciate about them or to ask them to share what they are most grateful for."

Notice Your Reactions

Returning to a childhood home or talking to family you haven't seen in a while can bring you back to old habits or behaviors. "We can regress, which means we leave our current ego state and emotionally regress to a much younger developmental state," explains Dummit. But that doesn't always have to be a bad thing. "This can provide a great deal of insight into the parts of ourselves we still have to work on. Notice what comes up. Often we become aware of old feelings, and might even start behaving like a child or teenager. This only illuminates issues we still need to resolve. So take note. We are never done working on ourselves."

Have an Exit Strategy

"Set a limit on how long you plan to stay," Dummit suggests. "Feeling trapped can only lead to an escalation of distress." The time limit can help put things into perspective. Every situation, no matter how uncomfortable, has an end! Dummit says you can also plan a few reasons to leave and keep them up your sleeve - just in case tension flares beyond your tolerance level. "It can be key to have a pre-planned reason to get out of there so you are not left fumbling for an excuse to leave," she says.

Prepare a Few Conversation Topics

What Netflix series have you been streaming? Tried any good restaurants lately? "Make sure you have conversational topics ready if you really need to change the subject," says DiMuzio. "If someone in your family brings up a topic that's a sore spot for you or anyone else, deflect to something more positive." You may also want to have a few snazzy transitions up your sleeve, DiMuzio says. "Lead the new topic with an exciting preface, like 'Oh, that reminds me, I've been meaning to tell you!'" she advises. This can turn the spotlight off of your evasion of the subject and smooth out an awkward situation. If all else fails, resort to some small talk. Here are a few tips to help you small talk like a pro.

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