Stressful Family? Cornell Prof Has Advice For A Smooth Thanksgiving

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For a lot of folks, the holidays with family can weigh heavy. So, WSKG called up Karl Andrew Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, for some advice on how to avoid pitfalls.

On how to approach estranged family members:

“Our studies have shown that as many as a fifth of Americans have at least one relative with whom they have no contact… I have a couple of pieces of advice for families. First, I would suggest to everyone that the holiday season is a wonderful opportunity to reach out. It doesn’t have to be with an invitation to a full Thanksgiving dinner, but it could be the opportunity to friend an estranged family member on Facebook… I would almost would like to see a Thanksgiving Day be a kind of ‘Reconciliation Day’ for people who have been on the fence about reaching out…”

On how to reduce the tension:

“Imagine a situation where the weather is bad outside. People are holed up in a smaller house with people they might not have seen for a long time. Sometimes people are drinking. They’re overeating. The TV’s on all the time. This is a hothouse for these kinds of conflicts, irritations, and difficulties and one of the things research shows is: get people outside… exposure to the outdoors and to green space can reset our thinking patterns.”

On how to reduce the tension if your family isn’t particularly active:

“It’s clear that a family of lifelong couch potatoes is not going to go out and run a 5K at the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot… One good stress buster and a good distraction is to really bring out old family history, family stories and traditions. One great thing to do is to get older members of the family to talk about earlier Thanksgivings, to have younger kids in the family interview the older people about their experiences. And also to bring out old dishes, old stories, old songs, board games… So to the extent that you can get people off devices and into some traditional family activities around Thanksgiving, and kind of a celebration of family history, all of those things build a sense of family as a bigger cooperative and solid unit that can transcend some of the day to day irritations that people experience.”

On whether to talk politics with a relative with a different view:

“I would suggest families avoid politics entirely, except under two conditions. One is if you are genuinely interested in learning another person’s point of view. Namely, it might be that a Trump supporter, or a progressive individual, the only time you’ll see them because they aren’t in your friendship networks, are in your family, so it can be an opportunity… or talk politics if it’s fun and enjoyable for everyone… in our research about estrangement in families, we found a surprisingly high rate of family relationships, which have almost been cut off because of the political arguments.

“If you know that there’s a relative that’s going to prod you because of your progressive or conservative beliefs, I might even try an email in advance saying, ‘hey, look, in the past, this has been difficult, I’d really like to avoid that this time.'”

On families who have lost the person who kept up traditions:

“Realistically speaking, there isn’t a great answer to that question… I think a good strategy is to reorganize it and keep the family getting together, but sometimes that really is difficult for families if there’s been one particular glue that holds everyone together and sometimes it does inevitably result in families staying at home and create their own Thanksgiving traditions… it’s great if family members can come together and remember departed members… but, if one is really depressed or despondent, or unhappy around the holidays, seeking some kind of professional help can be useful because clearly for people who have been bereaved, this can be an extraordinarily difficult time.”

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