Tips to avoid family controversy at Thanksgiving dinner

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We asked a clinical psychologist about what to do if your dinner is served with a side of controversy.

WASHINGTON — Your guests have arrived for a Thanksgiving feast. The turkey is perfect, the sides are on point and everyone is ready to dig in. That’s when someone brings up a controversial topic. Thanksgiving can be a difficult time for families with differing points of view. We asked an expert how to handle it.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Neil Bernstein practiced psychology in D.C. for nearly 50 years and just recently retired. He said the challenge is to be prepared. 

“The unifying theme has to be, ‘We’re all here to enjoy ourselves and be thankful,” Dr. Bernstein said.

Regardless of whether a controversial topic comes up, Dr. Bernstein cautions it is important to remember who else is around the table.

“The kids are watching. Thanksgiving is often an inter-generational adventure. What do we want the kids’ takeaway to be?”

While some families might make a blanket statement about no politics at the table, Dr. Bernstein said he might not go that far.

“I don’t know if I would say no politics allowed,” he said. “Truth be told, different people interpret different things differently, so you never know.”

Bernstein said it’s better to be ready for different scenarios, have a plan in place and act calmly.

“I’m not going to yell and scream. Instead I’ll say, ‘We’re not here to discuss this, let’s save this for another time,” he said. “Heated discussions are not unusual. It’s the resolution that’s important.”

What about that uncle from the other side of the political aisle? Bernstein points out that changing minds over a turkey drumstick isn’t likely.

“You’re not going to go anywhere with it other than create an atmosphere you don’t want,” he said.

Another way to avoid controversy is to start with modeling empathy and not conflict, Bernstein said. 

“It’s really important that we display understanding for people and acceptance,” Bernstein said.

Regardless of what differences your dinner guests may have, Bernstein said to look for the common ground. The end result should be simple.

“The goal is to have a good time. To leave the room feeling better than when we entered the room. If we accomplish that: Success.”

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Tips to avoid family controversy at Thanksgiving dinner

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