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Q&A: A Recipe for Dealing with Family Friction at Thanksgiving

A Thankgiving feast on a table

Roxanne Ruiz-Adams, DSW, LCSW, is a lecturer in the Kean University Department of Graduate Social Work in Nathan Weiss Graduate College and has a family therapy practice in Montclair. Kean News talked with her about how to manage or avoid family conflict at Thanksgiving, whether your family is coming together virtually or in small, in-person gatherings.

Kean lecturer Roxanne Ruiz-Adams, DSW, LCSW
Social Work Lecturer Roxanne Ruiz-Adams, DSW, LCSW

Q. Coming together at Thanksgiving can be challenging for families in any given year but perhaps more so this year after a divisive presidential election. What advice do you have for anyone who wants to avoid arguing?

The hot topic for many people right now is the very polarizing election. It seems everything is either good or bad. There hasn’t been a lot of room for the gray area. We have to recognize that with beliefs come emotions. Because many people have such strong emotions tied to what they believe in, we are not going to change the way people think over dinner. So, prior to any family event, we really must ask ourselves, “Is this the place that I want to talk about politics?” You can set boundaries on the kinds of things that you're not willing to allow in conversation. It's important to set those boundaries in the beginning and tell family members. There needs to be a level of self-awareness and emotional regulation. Be aware of what you're feeling; be aware of your triggers. You can stop and take a breath before you respond to anyone.

Q: We are also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. What impact does that have on family gatherings?

At this point just about everyone is impacted by the emotional toll of COVID, whether it be because of social isolation, job insecurity, fear of illness or political divide. I think everyone is on edge to a certain degree. Yet, there is something to be said about the power of human relationships. Holidays this year give us the opportunity to share needed love and kindness and to uplift others in this challenging moment. We are all, for different reasons, in a state of healing; therefore going into Thanksgiving with a set mindset on how each of us can translate our physical touch into a very needed virtual human encounter is all the more important. 

I think during this pandemic we are in a sort of virtual fatigue. Virtual gatherings require a different kind of etiquette no more challenging than the in-person etiquette we all feel more comfortable with. Consider having a shorter virtual event where everyone can share some laughs, talk some memories and wish each other well. Virtual interactions are unlike in-person ones, where the human presence can impact the demonstration of empathy when we talk about difficult topics. That's why talking about difficult situations virtually, especially in a group, will often make things worse no matter how well intentioned.  

Q. Should families develop strategies together?

Families can set ground rules. Don't talk over one another first and foremost, right? I know it's kind of cheesy, but families can use a talking stick — whoever is holding it gets to speak uninterrupted. Sometimes a lot of the tension comes from this idea of "I'm not feeling heard." Providing some structure on who talks when helps to settle that a little bit.  

Also, speak using the word “I.” Many times when we talk about our opinions or beliefs, we use the word “you,” and the magical thing about the word “you” is it is an intense trigger for someone's defense mechanisms. So, when you're speaking about this election, you want to talk about your feelings, your experiences and your disappointments because no one can take away your experiences. When you talk about other people and their experiences and motivations, then you really start to get into some major trouble.

Q. What if the dinner conversation goes off the rails?

You really have to identify who's the person going off the rails. Because if you're going off the rails, then you're the person who needs to take the time out. Check in with yourself and what you're feeling. Anger tends to really live in the chest. We feel it. It's this radiating ball of energy and when it becomes too strong, that's a signal for you to step out and take a breather to evaluate whether you're ready to come back. If you need to remove yourself and go home, then that's what you need to do for your own self-care. The same thing goes if somebody else in your family has gone off the rails and is becoming hurtful. Then you really need to evaluate whether where you are is good for you. 

Q. Can leaving the situation escalate it or be seen as passive-aggressive?

We really can't control how people interpret what we do. I think that's the hard thing with most conversations — we lose sight of what we can and can’t control. The only thing we can control is ourselves and our reactions. So how people determine passive aggressiveness in moments of tension is something to worry about another day. If you have to remove yourself from a room for your own mental health, that takes priority.

Q. Are there circumstances in which a person should break ties with their family?

I've been a family therapist for almost seven years now, and this is the question that most family therapists hate because we're very optimistic that reunification and preservation is always possible. But unfortunately, it's not. When you find yourself in a family that creates an environment of toxicity, who puts you both in emotional and physical danger, then that is when anybody has to make the very hard decision to break ties. It doesn’t have to be forever, but just long enough so the person in question is not in any physical or emotional harm and can seek help. 

Long-held family beliefs are sometimes the root of certain conflicts. In this era, it is important to recognize there are young adults who are being met with both hate speech and violence because of who they choose for a partner. Change, or even understanding, can be a slow process. Sometimes it is necessary for a person to take a step back from their family to preserve their own emotional and mental health. This is the time that our chosen family — friends — can be the most supportive and influential. 

Q. How can you stay true to yourself and get along with family members with strong differing opinions?

I want to end on an empowering note. You don’t have to give permission to conversations that make you feel uncomfortable as you navigate avoiding conflict on Thanksgiving. It is okay to speak up when you're in the presence of racial jokes, homophobic slurs or anything that does not meet your standards of human decency. Remember to use your "I" statements. Statements such as, "I feel uncomfortable" or "I am feeling hurt by that" are completely appropriate responses. You have a voice for pushing back against any kind of oppressive language because we don't want to be silent permission givers to that kind of speech. I'm all for keeping the peace, but not at the cost of sitting through something that you, in your morals, believe is wrong.