How to Survive Thanksgiving Dinner with Family

By Bill Arbuckle
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A family serves Thanksgiving dinner
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
If you find yourself heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house, check out these five simple tips to help you survive Thanksgiving dinner with family.

Two things bring a chill to the Thanksgiving holiday: an unexpected blizzard and an invitation to the annual family dinner. While you may spend a few days digging out from the snowfall, the fallout from a family get-together can last several years. So, if you find yourself heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, check out these five simple tips to help you survive Thanksgiving dinner with family and maybe even enjoy the pumpkin pie.

Every family has its quirks. Uncle John tells the same story every year. Great-Aunt Suzie insists on bringing her yappy dog and feeding it table scraps. Mom notices you’ve put on a few pounds and Cousin Steve insists on cheering for the Lions even though everyone else roots for the Packers. (Sorry, Detroit fans.) It’s enough to drive anyone crazy. Now, add jet lag, unrealistic expectations, cooped-up kids and memories of old family conflicts. No wonder families only do this once a year!

What if this year’s Thanksgiving dinner could be different? You might still get stuck listening to Uncle John’s timeworn tales, but you can choose how you and your spouse will deal with some of the challenges that come with family get-togethers.

Dr. Greg Smalley, Vice President of Marriage at Focus on the Family recommends trying one of these

Choose to respond with grace

You can’t control your family, but you can control your responses to the things they say or do. The best time to think about how you’ll respond is before you leave home. Think of it this way: You already know what kind of comments to expect. (, it is family.) What if you responded to those comments with grace? Not sure what that looks like? Here’s a nugget of ancient wisdom: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). You can’t just pretend everything is fine, but imagine the difference you could make by choosing grace instead of hurtful remarks.

Decide how to deal with snarky comments and criticisms

“Do not take to heart all the things that people say” (Ecclesiastes 7:21). Have you ever felt it’s easier to talk to strangers than family? Maybe it’s because families rely on a sort of “shorthand” — we reference events (“Remember the time?”) or tell old stories to make a point but we forget that there is a person behind the story and each person has different memories and emotions associated with that event. Not all those emotions are positive. How will you respond when someone tells a story about you? When they make light of something that hurt you deeply? You can return the hurt or you can respond with logic and fact. It’s also OK to say, “That’s enough.” And remember that you don’t have to jump into the middle of an argument. Acknowledge what is being said but refuse to be baited into a dispute.

Find a safe place

Give yourself permission to take a break. If the situation feels too intense or overwhelming, remember you have options. Take a break. Go to another room. Call a friend. Go for a walk.Talk to your favorite cousin. It’s healthy to retreat and refresh. You’ll find dealing with tough situations is easier after you’ve taken time to rest.

Plan to support your spouse

You may look forward to seeing your family. Your spouse might feel different because of past interactions or hurtful comments. Talk with your spouse to learn how they feel about spending Thanksgiving with your family. Are there concerns? How will you support your spouse when the conversation turns critical? Can you set healthy boundaries with family? Remember your relationship with your spouse takes priority and you may need to gently remind your extended family of that fact.

Keep it short and sweet

If you know you’re walking into a difficult situation or can’t get out of family plans, find a way to minimize your time with them. Make other plans (maybe even with your spouse’s family) that give you enough wiggle room to arrive late or leave early. Limiting time with extended family doesn’t mean you love them any less. It says you value the relationships enough to give them your very best during the time spent together.

Enjoy Thanksgiving dinner

It’s OK to feel nervous about spending time with relatives. But you can enjoy time together and avoid digging out from family friction by making wise decisions about how you deal with stress and support your spouse. Now, if we could just guarantee good travel weather…

© 2019 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Originally published on

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