All families may experience some sort of conflict when their members interact with each other, but that moment doesn't have to be at Thanksgiving, when the mood is supposed to be one of love and grace.
It can be hard trying not to let one's nuclear family drive them up the wall in a high pressure holiday situation, let alone an extended family. Nuclear families are together more or less by choice, but in extended family gatherings, people are together who may not like each other very much at all. There's the uncle who makes a show of supporting the politician you find morally reprehensible. Annoying tweens who don't just don't understand the traditions that were established years ago. And, grandparents who think the fact that their age gives them the right to say whatever pops into their head, no matter how awkward.
But with conflict avoidance and resolution tips from a professional like mental health nurse practitioner Danette Diethert of Essentia Health, every family member can be verbally equipped to prevent drama before it begins, and change the subject if things get tense.
A proactive thing one can do to stomp out awkwardness is to set up ground rules with family members in advance of the gathering, she said. Decide which topics should be off-limits.
Some good topics to stay away from: politics, money, and past family grudges, Diethert said.
The ground rules don't have to be completely prohibitive, either—they can also be geared toward creating fun. For example, one ground rule could be, each person brings a board game or game idea.
Sometimes, though, rage-triggering moments are inevitable.
Deep breathing is good for helping keep cool, Diethert said. Empathize with the other person's perspective, and keep in mind that holidays are the time to let things a person does go, even if they irritate you. In the event of ongoing conflicts with a long history, ask for forgiveness for a single day.
"It's not about winning right now," she said.
If someone persists in being obnoxious, it's OK to be assertive and say something along the lines of, "We should talk about this later," or "I'm not comfortable talking about that right now."
However, it's important to remain respectful, she said. A good way of not seeming confrontational is to preface your statement with, "I feel that," Diethert said. The objective should be validating someone's point of view at the same time you disagree with them.
"People can validate that other person's feeling, but then just keep redirecting it back to, 'We're going to have fun today and we're going to focus on what we're thankful for,'" she said.
One possibility for dealing with awkward conversations is to steer the topic toward more positive things, such as favorite childhood or Thanksgiving memories, Diethert said. One can design the topics in advance to fit a certain family, as long as they're positive.
"If people are preparing for this, they can think of various topics of conversation," she said.
A similar distraction tactic can be used for ornery children. One doesn't have to put themselves in the position of disciplining another family member's kids, Diethert said—simply provide them with an alternative activity, like a game or conversation topic. Another tactic is to model ideal behaviour to the kids, and praise them if they follow the lead, she said.