Unruly uncles? Infuriating in-laws? 7 expert tips for handling family during the holidays

For many families, this Thanksgiving will be the first time they’ve gathered for the holidays in two years.

And thanks to the turbulence of 2020 and 2021, even the most cohesive families might have an extra, unwanted guest at the table — drama.

The world has been chaotic since the last time we had a “normal” Thanksgiving, and these unprecedented times have certainly brought out the worst and the best in some families.

Even with a pan of your great-grandmother’s stuffing that you wait all year for in front of you, it could be hard to ignore that “worst.”

So ahead of this holiday season, I tracked down two experts to help put the day and all the chaos that might ensue into perspective.

Dr. Teah Moore, the director of the Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Spalding University, spent some time this month talking me through coping mechanisms for difficult family situations. Meanwhile, Fern Schumer Chapman, who was estranged from her brother for nearly four decades, explained how to embrace holidays outside of the typical family unit. She’s the Chicago-based author of "Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation," and she had some excellent insight on how to make the most of your own experience.

Their advice is not meant to guide you through trauma or abusive situations. That should always be discussed directly with a mental health professional.

But if you need some help navigating difficult situations or overwhelming personalities, they've got some fantastic ideas to help you have a peaceful and happy holiday.

Set reasonable expectations


First off, planning is important and that goes beyond what kind of dish you’re adding to the feast or whether you're using great grandma's china this year.

Both women agreed it’s important to set your expectations for any family event at a reasonable level.

“We put so much emphasis on these holidays, and it’s just another day and I think it’s important to remember that,” Chapman told me.

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If your sister-in-law is a control freak, this won’t be the year she suddenly starts delegating. If your cousin is reckless and unpredictable, he likely hasn’t learned manners since the last big family Thanksgiving two years ago.

You can, however, reframe how you think about those people’s annoying habits, Moore suggested.

Rather than emphasize the negatives, Moore recommends putting annoying qualities in a more understanding light. Your sister-in-law might be insufferable in how she likes her home run, but instead, it can be more tolerable to think of her as organized and thorough.

Meanwhile, if your cousin tends to spout off whatever he believes in an unsavory manner, perhaps, you could think of him as someone who has strong convictions.

“Sometimes we need to step back and look at them through a different lens because we love them still despite what we might see as their flaws,” Moore said.

Set rules to keep the peace

If you have a partner, you should work with them to define what the holidays mean to you, Moore says. Getting on the same page with the person you are sharing your life with makes dividing the calendars between families more seamless.

“Not everyone shares the same values or rules or beliefs about families and holidays,” Moore pointed out.

Rules are actually very important.

Between the conspiracy theories, the pandemic, the insurrection and more typical family rivalries holiday events could be more tense than usual this year. If we’re not conscious of our surroundings and our audience, we could end up leaving this holiday season feeling wistful for the more quiet events of 2020.

Even when we’re not in a global pandemic and tumultuous political cycle, family dynamics are difficult.

“This is one day of your life,” Chapman reminded. “It’s one meal. You do this for the sake of the family.”

Appoint an 'enforcer' of the rules

The many dishes on our Thanksgiving table give us cause to tackle several food safety challenges that will ensure that everyone has a safe holiday meal.
The many dishes on our Thanksgiving table give us cause to tackle several food safety challenges that will ensure that everyone has a safe holiday meal.

It’s also OK to set boundaries about what are acceptable dinner conversations, Chapman said. It’s even OK to tap the family matriarch or the patriarch to put a halt to conversations that should be avoided during joyful moments.

“I think it’s important to have a policy, and if the policy is ‘we don’t talk about politics at the table’ that’s not enough,” Chapman explained. “You have to have an enforcer.”

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Not talking about differences doesn’t make your own beliefs any less important. It just means that you’re choosing to focus on family, good food, and nostalgia with people who may believe something different than you do.

“One way to deal with it is just to make up your mind about how you’re going to react,” Moore suggested. “I think that our pride gets in the way of our opportunities to be where our family is. Just love on them and share in friendship.”

Know your own limits

There’s a difference, of course, between annoying personalities and deep-rooted pain and anger. Few families are complete without grudges, whether they’re about which grandkids get the most time with grandma and grandpa or which grown sibling got a bigger cut of the family inheritance.

Some wrongdoings are genuinely hard to let go of, and Moore says, and it’s important to know your own limits. It’s alright to just pop in for dinner and say hi to grandma and grandpa if being around a part of your extended family is just too much for you.

It’s also OK to step quietly step into another room if someone is causing you pain.

“We have to be brave enough to protect our space,” Moore said. “While we might love that person, I’ve learned that we can love people from afar as well.”

Pick another day to talk through issues

People passing dishes around a Thanksgiving table.
People passing dishes around a Thanksgiving table.

Sometimes families need to have tough conversations, but there are genuinely 360 or so other days in a year that are better to have them than Thanksgiving. Just because you don’t discuss your pain on Thanksgiving doesn’t mean it’s not real and that it can’t be addressed later.

If you’re worried about what you might say to someone who has deeply hurt you, Moore suggests enlisting a counselor to role-play conversations ahead of family occasions. Often the big ideas and snappy comebacks that fester in our heads are less effective than we might think once they’re said out loud.

Get creative about celebrating

And sometimes if situations or specific family members are too toxic, it’s better not to be with family on the holidays.

Chapman knows first-hand what it’s like to have to juggle the painful rejection she felt from her brother with the pleasantries of a big family event. Initially, he avoided her company on occasions, and then slowly she stopped receiving invitations at all.

After a while, she felt largely family-less and she ruminated endlessly over what had gone wrong.

“What happens at the holidays is the holidays underscore the pain that you have throughout the year,” she remembered. “It serves as this painful reminder that you are alienated from family.”

So she got creative about filling her own dinner table. Sometimes she invited friends, neighbors, and even sailors from a nearby naval base who had nowhere to go for the holidays. Helping someone else when you’re struggling can be cathartic, partly because it puts your own life and your own situation in perspective. Other years she let the celebrations pass by unnoticed as she cleaned out closets and organized her home.

“We put so much emphasis on these holidays and it’s just another day and I think it’s important to remember that,” Chapman said.

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Your life doesn't have to be a Hallmark movie

Friendsgiving, a gathering of friends to celebrate Thanksgiving without holiday family drama, has become increasingly popular. Friendsgiving often is held the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Friendsgiving, a gathering of friends to celebrate Thanksgiving without holiday family drama, has become increasingly popular. Friendsgiving often is held the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

This year Chapman is excited to welcome her children and her grandchildren to her home. She’s eager to cook the meal and celebrate with the family she built for herself.

Still, she remembers what it was like to dread the holiday, and before we got off the phone, she reiterated the importance of monitoring your own expectations.

We live in a culture that cranks out holiday movies with picture-perfect nuclear families, and while it debatably makes for good television that’s not a reality for most people. There’s an inherent belief that family always provides warmth and comfort, and that's not entirely true.

And while many families are in fact well-intentioned, often grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings bring a side of headaches to the meal.

Honestly, it’s OK if your family causes some headaches.

Families are rarely as cohesive, peaceful, and supportive as they appear in holiday movies.

“There is this fantasy tied to the holidays and most people aren’t living it,” Chapman told me. “It just isn’t there.”

Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you've got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at mmenderski@courier-journal.com. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Home for the holidays: Health tips on how to deal with family, stress