Emotional Health · Health

Changing Thanksgiving Traditions: 10 Ways to Discuss Difficult Issues With Family Members

Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen is a collaborative physician who writes a weekly Medical Monday” column for Women’s Voices for Change. (Search our archives for her posts, calling on the expertise of medical specialists, on topics from angiography to vulvar melanoma.)

This week, Dr. Pat has asked Megan Riddle, M.D./Ph.D.— a psychiatry resident at the University of Washington and a graduate of the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program—to help a mother of two have a conversation with her own parents about the pressures of Thanksgiving—without causing a big rift.

I live in the Northwest and my family members live in the Southeast. My parents and siblings expect me to load up my two middle-school-age children and husband, find and pay for someone to care for the dog, and travel there on Wednesday night (returning Sunday night) to share in the Thanksgiving ritual. I have come to hate this holiday because of the demands made on me by my entire family. My parents and siblings are all lovely and I love them, but this emphasis on a national holiday for “togetherness” at great expense for many families who live far away from their family of origin is making life really, really hard for many of us. My husband and I are both teachers and finances are tight. But frankly, time is tighter. My children hate the flight delays and hate the stress that we all endure. I actually have been thinking about lying — “the kids have the flu” — to get out of this.  

How do we have a conversation with everyone back home and not cause a big rift? What kind of script could you suggest? We do go home in the summer for two weeks, when we are not working and are lucky to have a bit more time off than most people because as teachers we get a longer summer vacation.



Dear Joann,

You are certainly not alone. Nearly 44 million Americans travel over 50 miles to be with friends or family on Thanksgiving, leading to painfully congested roads and airports. While some look forward eagerly to being with family for the holidays, for many it is a trying experience. I understand that you are conflicted, both wanting to keep the peace with your parents and siblings while also respecting your own family’s needs, all with limited resources.

Traditions surrounding the holidays can be comforting and fulfilling, but also burdensome and exhausting. For you, it seems to have become more of the latter. However, as you note, changing these traditions can be challenging, as people may be wedded to the rituals to varying degrees – some have been looking forward to Thanksgiving togetherness since before they had even run out of turkey leftovers last year, while others have been dreading it just as long.  

You mention that you could fudge the truth a bit and claim illness. Although this is always an option, it merely shifts the problem into the future — will someone else be sick next year? — and leaves you with a guilty knot in your stomach. Also, in the age of social media, it only takes one happy photo of you and the kids around the turkey at your own kitchen table to blow your fib and leave you scrambling for excuses. I don’t recommend it. So where does that leave you? To face the conversation.

Given that this may be a difficult talk to have with your family, here are ten tips for approaching difficult topics in general, focusing on your holiday conundrum.

10 Tips for Tough Conversations:

  1. Think about what you want before the conversation: What would your ideal Thanksgiving look like this year? Next year? Is it that you want to stay at home this year, but would consider making the trek next year? Would you consider hosting your extended family at your house, adding the burden of preparation, but removing the need to travel? Try to get creative when considering alternatives. What about everyone traveling to someplace more central, like taking advantage of cheap flights to Las Vegas? I know of some families who, for the holidays, take a short cruise — that way, no one has to cook or clean. If finances are tight, this may not be an option, but sometimes packages are available that may make it affordable. If part of the importance of Thanksgiving to your extended family is the opportunity for them to see you at another time in addition to the summer break, could you do Thanksgiving apart, but take a trip to the family home during midwinter break? Travel may be less expensive and less onerous if you are going slightly off-season.  
  2. Timing: Let’s be honest, if you’ve waited until the last minute to have this conversation, it may be even more difficult. This is not a talk to have the week before Thanksgiving. If you’ve bought your tickets for this year, go ahead and go, with the idea that you can lay the groundwork for making things different next year. While it may feel early, changing your traditions could even be a conversation to have during your summer vacation there, which brings us to the next tip.
  3. Have the conversation in person: If possible, tough conversations are best handled in person.  Now, this is definitely not the easiest choice. We’d all rather broach these topics via email or text message, providing a protective technological barrier between us and our potentially angry loved one. Although there are some settings where electronic delivery may be appropriate, it is generally best to have these conversations in person or at least over the phone. This helps prevent the misunderstandings that can explode when you take away the nuance of voice and facial expression. It also gives you the opportunity to read the other person’s reaction and adjust your approach accordingly.
  4. Choose a neutral moment: If you are in the midst of an already emotionally laden conversation about a different topic, don’t add to it. Similarly, Friday afternoon after an exhausting week at work is not the time to bring this up. Consider both your emotional state and that of the other person.
  5. Say your part, then listen: It can be easy to fall into the trap of continuing to talk, stonewalling  the other person’s reaction. Instead, stop and allow the other person to respond.
  6. Come from a position of curiosity: What are your parents’ thoughts about Thanksgiving? You suggest that the whole family expects you to come to the Southeast for Thanksgiving, but I wonder if you have actually talked to them about this. As your parents age, putting on the big meal for the extended family may become more difficult, making it time for a new tradition.
  7. Stay calm: The other person may get emotional; try not to rise to the bait. This can be particularly difficult in family situations when others may know exactly how to push your buttons, even unintentionally.
  8. Use reflective listening: This is a technique practiced by therapists and helps the other person recognize that you are paying attention. In this case, after your mom talks a blue streak about the need to be together for the holidays, you might respond, “Mom, I hear you saying that it is important to have the family together.” If you can add something that agrees with her position, like “and I also treasure the time we have together,” this can help establish that you are both on the same side.
  9. Consider this a problem to be solved, not a war to be won: In family battles, no one can truly emerge a victor as there is often too much collateral damage. This is where those alternative ideas you took the time to think about prior to starting this conversation come in handy. Before you start talking, come to terms with what you can negotiate and what you can’t. This can make it easier to come to something that both parties can agree upon.
  10. Expect some hurt feelings: Change is hard. When you tell your family, we’re changing our tradition it can feel like a personal rejection. Offer reassurance and support, but be realistic about your expectations.

When holiday traditions become more burdensome than rejuvenating, it’s time to consider making a change. By addressing this honestly and thoughtfully, you trade a bit of discomfort now for more fulfilling Thanksgivings in the future. Best of luck!  


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  • Fiona November 23, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks for the worthwhile advice. Useful reminder for those of us who are careful in handling delicate family matters. These well chosen words could not have come at a more timely moment.