Do you want family Thanksgiving advice that goes beyond turkey meals? After all, Thanksgiving food is just part of the big day.
To find out how to decrease stress and increase smiles and conversation, I talked with some of my favorite experts. Their advice:
Recognize why Thanksgiving can be stressful. The main reason: "The powerful fantasy of family unity and love that is part of the traditional expectation," says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character. "This implies not only that the food is delicious and fulfilling, but that the emotional interaction is nostalgic, supportive and sublime. This is a hard road to hoe when the relatives descend on the hostess for an all-day living room chat, followed by a complicated meal. The expectations of celestial family harmony may clash with the reality in painful ways."
Promote positive nostalgia. "Bringing out photo albums is always engaging for families and can move the interaction toward more affectionate memories," says Berger.
Don't insist on every guest being together in the same room, at the same time, at all times. The goal? "Family harmony over family unity," says Michelle Barratt, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, a former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on adolescence, and the mother of five. One group could play a board game upstairs, one could watch football downstairs, and another could talk at the kitchen table after the dinner, she says.
Get every generation to chat. Ask the third graders at your celebration to help you brush up on the history of Thanksgiving, says Barratt. "They're like the local expert on what the Pilgrims were like."
Include everyone in conversations. "If you're talking about football, you've left me out," says Barratt.
Take turns sharing what you're thankful for. "You could even collect a card from everyone, as they enter the house, about what they're thankful for and pull them out and have people guess who put that one in," says Barratt. Another technique: Start a photo-filled family thankfulness page on Facebook, says Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy. Then no one feels "on the spot" at the table, he says. "I like the idea of people thinking about, and sharing, that for which they are thankful. Just need to find ways to do it that make it more comfortable, less a sense of pressure, less a sense of 'public speaking.'"
Make sure one adult is OK with little-kid duty. "Be respectful of whoever got that assignment," says Barratt. "They need to be spelled."
Play games. Classics like charades and Mad Libs "can generate good cheer and laughter," says Berger. Another option: the game Quelf, which Barratt's kids play. (You need to do what your card says, whether it's snort like a pig or roll the dice with your elbows.)
Don't keep kids cooped up. "Letting young people run around outside is always an option," says Berger.
Give out jobs. "Assigning tasks can spread the good feeling of making a contribution and may help the extended family and guests feel more cohesive," says Berger.
Listen. "I often encourage clients to be a little like an anthropologist," says Hindy. "Step back a little and observe. Watch the family dynamics. See what you can learn and better understand by observing over the holiday meals…Go into it with a new attitude." See Thanksgiving as an opportunity to better understand your family. "Putting yourself in the anthropologist role is not a way to be defensive," says Hindy. "On the drive home, or after the guests leave, you can process with your partner how it went and perhaps feel closer — rather than it all coming between you."
Think about what's good about Thanksgiving."To me, Thanksgiving is the best holiday because there's no real expectation," says Barratt. "You don't have to have a gift for someone, you don't have to make it to a church service." And contrary to what some folks believe, says Hindy, "I think most people look forward to the talking.I see these holiday family gatherings as a great opportunity — to learn about your family patterns, reflect on the family patterns that were present and formative when you were a child, and arrive at a more comfortable appreciation for it all."
Here's to a happy, stress-free Thanksgiving with family and friends.
For more about Thanksgiving, read: