How to Survive Thanksgiving with a Dysfunctional Family

For some families, the holidays are an opportunity to enjoy togetherness over a full plate. Stress is minimal, conflict is rare and touchy subjects are (somehow) navigated with ease.If you’re reading this article, that probably isn’t how you’d describeyour family…

Have what you’d consider a “challenging” bunch? It’s only human to grow a bit cynical ━ maybe even jealous━ when you see others reveling in the holiday fantasy while you’re just trying to get through dinner damage-free.

If this sounds like you, hear this: you are not doomed to a lifetime of hands thrown in the air in dismay. With a little social engineering (and a whole lot of deep breaths), you can take control of the situation. Over time, you might even begin to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner! Here’s how to make a start.

First, take a step back.

Take stock of what’s really going on in your family. What are the realities you have to face every year, without fail? It’s not breaking news that your fatherdoesn’t like your sister’s husband, or that your grandma has bad blood with so-and-so. Take note. This information, when considered objectively, will be useful later.

Second, recruit backup.

Chances are, you aren’t the only one who’s irked by your family’s dysfunction. Figure out who in your family you can call on to help make things better. Tag team with your sister or cousin or whoever, anddiscuss ways to steer troublesome conversations in a new direction.

mother and father holding hands at thanksgiving table

Third, invite “buffers.”

Most people’s manners improve when outsiders join in. Can’t count on your family to put their best foot forward on your own? Bring a friend, someone whose parents live far away, maybe a foreign exchange student from a local college. Just watch━ grandpa will hold his tongue.

Fourth, navigate hindrances.

An example: got problem drinkers in the family? Host an alcohol-free dinner. Nowhere is it written in the Thanksgiving rule book that alcohol must be served. Those who can’t stand the holidays without a solid buzz won’t show (which might be just fine) and everyone else will be spared those individuals making a scene.

Fifth, control the mood.

If your family can’t sit down together without starting an argument (or twelve), call on prompts or conversation games to control the chit chat. Ask everyone to indulge you by playing a game (at least for a portion of the meal). Some great ideas include Would You Rather and 20 Questions. You might also try playing a lighthearted playlist in the background.

Whatever you do, steer clear of:

  • Controversial topics
  • Gossip
  • Bragging
  • Medical conditions

Also be wary of topics like:

  • Current events
  • School drama
  • Money
  • Sports rivalry

No one feels good walking away from a dysfunctional family dinner. Fortunately, you have the power to change things (or at least shift things in a positive direction). Who knows, maybe this is the year things turn around. Good luck!

What strategies have you employed to help your family come together?


Kathy K
Kathy K22 days ago


Jan K
Jan K24 days ago


Lisa Merchant
Lisa Merchant25 days ago

My kids and I stay silent the entire time unless someone spoke to us. It didn't work. The only thing that worked was not seeing them at all. It was only then that my kids and I had a good Thanksgiving. Sometimes, the best thing is NOT seeing your toxic family for the holidays. Just call, text or send a card to wish them a happy Thanksgiving and Christmas. I'm perfectly happy with just my kids and my cats for the holidays, and so are they. They are the only family I want/need.

Anne M
Anne M25 days ago

If it's such a hassle,, why get together in the first place..

Shirley P
Shirley P25 days ago


hELEN hEARFIELD25 days ago


Janet B
Janet B25 days ago


Christine D
Christine D25 days ago

My family is so scattered about the country that we never get together for major holidays. When I was growing up, Thanksgiving (and Christmas) dinners were fairly low-key because my mother hated cooking. It was the same simple menu year after year.

Elizabeth H
Elizabeth H25 days ago

Surely you can get along together for a few hours. If not stay at home.

Angela K
Angela K25 days ago

Thanks for sharing