Thanksgiving has arrived and this year it will take place under unique circumstances due to COVID-19 concerns. Regardless of how families may be connecting this year, many people look forward to the holiday with a mix of pleasure and concern about how everyone will get along.

Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, has conducted studies of family estrangement and reconciliation, profiled in his new book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. His surveys of approximately hundreds of family members translate to the experience of around 15,000 Thanksgivings, both good and bad.


Pillemer says:

Eliminate Politics from the Dinner Table Discussion

“It’s going to be hard this year. Okay, in some families, it’s going to be really, really hard. But here’s the best advice: When you are together at Thanksgiving make contentious political arguments out of bounds. The research shows that these conflicts are simply unnecessary. Often, the urge is to make your loved ones ‘really understand’ what’s going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically. Decide in advance to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. If you can’t get family agreement, set your own limits and stick with them. There’s nothing wrong with heading out for a walk if your limits are tested.”

Don’t Try to Fix Each Other’s Life at Thanksgiving

“This advice is primarily for parents and their adult children, but it also applies to siblings as well. Thanksgiving is not the time to exhort your child to get out of a relationship or get into one, to get a new job or stay in the old one, or to get his or her life on track. This is not the time for adult offspring to push the folks to sell the house or to start exercising. And it’s also not the time to lay into your brother about still living in the basement and wasting his life. Let the holiday be a break from trying to change one another.”

Don’t Take Everything Personally      

“Both the research and clinical advice align on one suggestion for dealing with family tensions at Thanksgiving: under-react. Strive to de-personalize negative interactions as much as you can. By considering, for example, how parents’ (or parents-in-law’s) background and upbringing influence their attitudes and behavior, it’s possible to take conflict less personally and achieve some emotional distance in the relationship. Parents can take the same approach toward their adult children. Take a mental step back when you feel the tension mount, and a few deep breaths. Not everything needs a reaction, and it’s okay to let a stray comment or criticism pass you by.”

Remind Yourself Why You Are Doing It

“This final tip from the research could be a mantra in difficult family situations. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer – both to them, and to yourself. The closest thing to a ‘magic bullet’ for motivating yourself to put the effort into a Thanksgiving gathering, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your family. At the very least, if your parents-in-law are driving you crazy, you can remind yourself that they produced your spouse, whom you love. According to our elders, stepping back and taking this larger view can get you through the pumpkin pie (real or virtual) with a minimum of stress.”