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7 Ways to Diffuse Tension at the Thanksgiving Table

Picture a Hallmark movie scene: everyone is beautifully dressed, a Martha Stewart-approved table setting, a cozy fireplace glow, savory smells filling the air, and sounds of pleasant conversation and gentle laughter. I do not know about you, but that is pretty much the way our family Thanksgiving scene looks ... well, at least in my dreams. Reality tends to be somewhere between that scene and Chevy Chase’s Christmas vacation fiasco. My heart longs for the Hallmark movie experience, but life does not cooperate.

In my family of origin with a mom, dad, son, and daughter, holidays were fairly quiet compared to the family my husband and I have now, with four biological adult children, four teenage children adopted from China, and 10 (soon 11) grandchildren. As a mom, I would love to have all of my children and grandchildren home for the holidays. However, with family members who serve in the military and law enforcement and living all over the world, it has rarely been possible. Still, holidays generally include a number of family members and extended family, friends, our children’s friends, and college students who cannot travel home. Our house is inevitably filled with diverse people and rich (noisy) conversations. We love hosting Thanksgiving even though it is a ton of work preparing for a small army of guests. Beyond cleaning the house and preparing food and decor, there are relational stresses and situations that require attention. Holiday gatherings can be a fertile breeding ground for various expectations, disappointments, disagreements, and offenses. If we do not prepare, our gathering can be marred by tension at the table.

Why Is it So Easy for Tension to Occur at the Thanksgiving Table?

Stress is normal. According to a 2018 CivicScience poll, 71% of respondents felt stressed about Thanksgiving (and that was pre-pandemic and pre-inflation). Women, in particular, articulated stress around shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Parents described stress regarding custody arrangements and time with children. This year well-publicized travel troubles (flight delays, pilot shortages, flight delays, airline ticket prices, increased automobile traffic, construction delays, and soaring fuel costs) compound the stress. With record inflation, this year’s Thanksgiving dinner may be one of the most expensive ever in history!

Beyond financial concerns and hosting duties, there is the additional stress of the family dynamics which are center stage when families gather. The freshman college students' return home may evoke conflict between newly-found freedoms and established house rules. As a clinical counselor, I have had conversations with people who are concerned about spending Thanksgiving with a mother who was an alcoholic but has been sober for five years, a father who was physically abusive many years ago, a wayward child who may or may not show up, a family member who crossed sexual boundaries years ago, or relatives who do not get along with each other. Some people face navigating the first holiday without a spouse, a parent, or a child due to work, distance, custody agreements, divorce, or trading off holidays with in-laws. Grief can consume energy, limit patience, and lessen the ability to connect with others. Holidays can also inspire nostalgia, but not all memories are good memories. Even when we see that the family member has changed, we can still be triggered to remember the painful history. Emotions are often amplified as joy and pain sit side by side at the table.

7 Tension Tamers That "I" Can Employ at the Thanksgiving Table 

Thanksgiving preparations need to include preparing our hearts and minds to tame the tension that can exist at the table. As much as I want to create a picture-perfect day, I can only control my thoughts, actions, and responses. Here are some “I” s that can help as we prepare. 

1. Identify Expectations. 
Expectations set us up for disappointment. Hollywood-level ideas about what Thanksgiving should look like set us up for unmet expectations and hamper our gratitude, which (ironically) is the real focus of Thanksgiving. What expectations do you have? Write them down. Then look at your list and ask yourself: 1- Is this possible? 2- Is this reasonable? 3- Is this within your own control? Remove anything from your list that cannot pass the test. Concentrate on one or two expectations left that are possible, reasonable, and within your control.

2. Invalidate Comparisons and Complaints. 
Comparisons are harmful and rarely accurate. We take the best meal from one social media post, the best decorations from another, the best family photos from yet another, and compare ourselves to them all. When we spend the day comparing and complaining, we miss out on the good stuff. In Philippians 4:8, Paul reminds believers to think about what is good, lovely, and praiseworthy. Set a goal to do your best not to compare or complain but to meditate on what is lovely and good. Replace comparisons and complaints with thanksgiving.

3. Inspect the Source of Disagreements.
According to James 4:1, arguments originate from selfish desires. We naturally like things to go our own way. A toddler at Thanksgiving dinner does not mind expressing what he wants and what he does not want. But truthfully, we all have a toddler inside of us who must be tamed if we are to walk in the Spirit and not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). 

4. Interrogate Your Thoughts. 
Spending the day with family might trigger all kinds of thoughts and feelings. When you see an old familial pattern, you might be tempted to voice the thought, “I had to endure this as a child, but I am an adult now and I am not going to put up with this anymore!” While the thought may be true, it probably is not the time or place to express it. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, we are instructed to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Thanksgiving comes soon after political elections in the U.S. and politics may be on the minds of guests. In this era of deeply divided political ideologies, chances are not everyone at the table shares the same political views. If you value good conversations, then you need to remember that you do not have to express every thought that you think. Interrogate each thought and ask yourself if the thought fits the criteria in #1. If someone is provoking an argument, don’t take the bait. Walk away. Distract yourself. Choose the thoughts you want to convey. 

5. Invite Curiosity.
Allow yourself to be curious about another person’s perspective. Listen well and try to identify common ground. Listening well and inviting curiosity opens conversations rather than shutting them down. When I listen poorly and just want to be right, I really do not prove anything, and it is not an effective way to change someone’s mind. When I listen well and ask clarifying questions, I often discover that the other person merely wanted to process some idea and that they may not even be convinced their stance is correct. They just wanted to explore the topic. This is often the case with adolescents and young adults.

When Jesus’ parents left him in Jerusalem and returned to find him teaching in the temple, they were “astonished” (Luke 2:48). I am often more annoyed than astonished. There is a normal developmental stage where teens (and pre-teens often) can begin to think in more abstract ways, which leads to more questions that sound like a debate. If I can remember to be in awe that my child is thinking about significant things and trying to reconcile his or her biblical teaching with some new information and be grateful that he or she wants to discuss this with me, then I can be curious rather than judgmental.

6. Initiate Grace-Filled Conversations. 
Acknowledge that there will likely be at least one challenging conversation. Your sister might react disrespectfully. Your uncle might present only one side of a hotly debated political issue. You might be the topic of conversation for some shortcomings or recent mistakes. When this happens, decide how you want to respond. If you anticipate possible irritations, you can prepare by asking God to give you a reply that can diffuse the situation (Proverbs 15:1). In Colossians 4:6, Paul urges, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Grace is the unmerited favor that God shows to us so that we can dispense it to others. When I show grace, I can be curious, kind, and patient rather than judgmental, rude, and curt. I can demonstrate humility rather than arrogance and make requests rather than demands. Grace is a gift I receive and a gift that I can give. But it is easy and does not come naturally to me.

Psychologist Alfred Adler offered a useful strategy, the acting “as if” technique. Participants choose to act “as if” they are already fully the person they aspire to be. If I aspire to be more patient, then I can act “as if” I am patient and respond in the way a patient person would respond. Even though I am not yet the person I want to be, I can choose to act like her. Another version of this is to act “as if” the person meant what they said in the best way possible. If you find yourself more upset than those around you because you “know what they really meant by that comment,” then acting “as if” you don’t know (because you really don’t) can help you respond with grace. However, our response does not automatically ensure a good outcome. Accept that you can only control your part. In Romans 12:18, Paul declares, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

7. Include and Attend to Your Guests. 
God proclaimed that it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We are created for community. It is okay- even desirable- to ask for help. Asking or accepting guests’ offers to bring a dish or a dessert, allowing guests to help set the table or helping with clean up can be a practical way to include others. It can be hard to ask for help, but when I am a guest, I enjoy helping. Why would I rob others of the same joy?

In the Gospel of Luke, we get a glimpse of how Jesus prioritizes preparations for a big dinner.  Martha is upset to find her sister, Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet when there is much work to do. She appeals to Jesus to set her sister straight, but Jesus lovingly corrects Martha instead by telling her that Mary has chosen what is most important (Luke 10:38-42). Most pastors have (rightly) emphasized the lesson that we need to prioritize time with Jesus, but some may overlook the more practical lesson. Mary attended to her guest and demonstrated prioritizing people over preparations.     

Including others could mean asking a trusted friend to pray for you, seeking guidance from a pastor, or even requesting counseling assistance. If anticipating Thanksgiving causes you undue anxiety or if unresolved hurts surface, then it might be time to seek professional help to identify and break harmful family patterns and begin to make peace with past experiences, trauma, and loss. Carrying the burdens of the past can crowd out space for creating good family memories. Thanksgiving dinner is not the time to stage a family intervention or bring up old wounds, but taking time before the big day to address those things and then putting them away for the day can enable you to focus on loved ones and build pleasant memories to help heal the painful ones.

Holidays are rarely picture-perfect, but they provide an opportunity to create lasting memories. What memories will you make? Thanksgiving will not be perfect because no one invited to the table is perfect. But with the proper preparation, you can transform your Thanksgiving table into a place of gratitude and peace. As we strive to live in peace with others, Paul encourages us that “the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11). God knows we cannot do this alone. We need His strength, His wisdom, and His presence to bring peace first to our hearts and then to our tables.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/AlexRaths

Glenda Hill Nanna, PhD, LPC-S is the Director of Graduate Counseling Programs and an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. She also maintains a small private practice, Charis Counseling & Consulting, providing clinical counseling and counselor supervision. Glenda has been married to her high school sweetheart for over 40 years and they have four adult biological children, four teenage children adopted from China, and a growing number of grandchildren. They enjoy traveling, jetskiing, skeet shooting, teaching, ministry opportunities, and playing with grandchildren.

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