Tip Sheets

Comment-free zone: Tips for surviving family holidays

Media Contact

Gillian Smith

Thanksgiving is around the corner and for some people, that can be a cause for anxiety. Many people approach the holiday with both a desire to experience family togetherness and worries about stepping back into unwanted family roles or encountering difficult relatives.

Karl Pillemer

Professor of psychology and of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine

Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, offers tips on avoiding the pitfalls of family holiday gatherings.

Pillemer says:

Establish a moratorium on criticism. Research shows a single negative interaction overpowers many positive ones. So, make provocative comments out of bounds. Let the holiday be a break from trying to change one another. Instead, compartmentalize Thanksgiving as a “correction-free zone.”

Take politics off of the table. To avoid conflict, deflect political conversations or exit the situation if you find things becoming heated. Another idea is to use “compassionate curiosity,” asking for more information and trying to understand the underlying causes of a political belief you find offensive.

Get outside. Especially in bad weather, Thanksgiving gatherings can become literal hothouses, with large families squeezed into small spaces. To reduce stress, get everyone outside. Some families have a traditional touch football game (even more fun in snow). Organize walks or hikes; studies show that exposure to nature is a major stress-reducer.  

Bring back traditions. One way to emphasize family solidarity is to hearken back to old family traditions and activities. Bring out the old board games instead of electronic ones. Find recipes for dishes you loved as a child. Even better, bring the elders in your family into the picture by having the younger members ask them about their histories, values, and advice. A holiday like Thanksgiving is an ideal time to make the past alive in the present.

Extend an olive branch. Our studies show more than one-fifth of Americans are currently estranged from one or more relatives. Thanksgiving is an ideal time to reach out to an estranged relative, possibly with an invitation to the holiday gathering, but even an email or a Facebook friend request can start the reconciliation process.

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