A happy family at the dinner table, who have learned how to avoid arguments at Thanksgiving

5 Strategies to Avoid Fights at Thanksgiving

For many people, the holiday season isn’t much of a holiday. You might have to visit family you dislike, or be dreading arguments or uncomfortable questions. In fact, Thanksgiving and Christmas sometimes bring up even more anxiety, bad memories and triggers than the rest of the year! So, let’s explore some ways you can avoid fights at Thanksgiving and make your holiday as relaxing as it should be!

1. Have a safe topic prepared.

Think of a few neutral conversation ideas that are hard to turn into politics, religion, or other sensitive topics. Hobbies, favorite books or music, and household projects are all good ideas. If you don’t want to share anything personal, try deflecting the conversation to things that your friends, coworkers, or characters in a popular TV show are up to.

I like to keep a list of conversation starters at hand. It’s easier to refer to a list and pick something fun than to try to invent it myself when I’m feeling stressed.

2. Resist getting provoked.

Some people may insist on turning the conversation into an argument, or bringing up stressful topics, even if you play it safe. Do not engage with them when they do this. Do not let yourself get dragged in. Even if they say offensive or ignorant things, your job is to keep yourself sane.

Depending on the person doing it, you can either:

  1. Keep talking about the neutral topic as if they hadn’t said anything.
  2. Change the subject again. Try catching them off guard with an irrelevant question, like “What do armadillos eat?” or “Have you ever played pickleball?”
  3. Tune the person out or start talking to someone else.
  4. Tell the person you don’t want to talk about the stressful topic.
  5. Walk away.

Think about the people you know, and which strategy will work best on them.

3. Avoid fights at Thanksgiving with a shared activity.

A shared activity can center everyone’s attention on a safe topic. Watching a movie, playing a sport, board games, making art, or putting jigsaw puzzles together can all work. Dogs, kids, and going outside can also be excellent distractions.

If your difficult relative won’t join in the fun, and insists on making irritating remarks, the shared activity can also give you an excuse to ignore them. “Can this wait? We’re trying to focus on the game now.”

4. Watch the alcohol.

Heavy conversations usually go poorly if one or both sides have been drinking. By limiting your intake, you can better anticipate if a conversation is going south. You’ll also be more able to restrain yourself, redirect things, or leave if necessary. If your family drinks a lot of alcohol at this time, try alternating alcohol with water or juice for yourself. A full glass will discourage others from offering you refills.

Notice when others are intoxicated, too. Drunk people are more likely to say hurtful things, and arguing with them doesn’t work. That may be your best cue to leave.

5. Get your own space.

Sometimes, the best way to avoid fights at Thanksgiving is to just get out of there. Take a break on the back porch. Say you have a headache and need to go to bed early. Offer to get a napkin for someone from the kitchen. If your relatives are very persistent, consider renting a hotel room instead of spending the night with them.

Bonus tip: If you absolutely can’t avoid a fight at Thanksgiving…take time to recover afterward.

Sometimes, even if you do everything right, you’ll still get hurtful comments, unwanted questions, or lose your temper. Others may get in a fight even if you stay out of it. You may come back carrying a lot of stress or frustration.

Try to arrange a day right after the trip when you can decompress. Ideally, a day where you don’t have to work, either. If that’s not possible, find a few hours where you can. Allow yourself to feel upset for several days, look for pleasant distractions, and find supportive people to talk to.

Sometimes visiting family brings up bad memories or painful emotions we thought we’d dealt with before. If these feelings don’t resolve on their own after a few weeks, it may help to talk to a therapist. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in working through those issues more deeply.