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The politics of Thanksgiving: Keeping the peace post-election

Political Thanksgiving drama
How to prevent political Thanksgiving drama 06:04

Holidays are rarely Hallmark Channel movie perfect, but this year will prove especially stressful for some as they head home to families and communities who don’t hold the same political views and values. 

Some families may do well to keep this year’s holiday gatherings a politics-free zone, experts told CBS News, but others can still enjoy discussions about current events by keeping certain behaviors in check

Here are some tips for avoiding a holiday blowup:

Set ground rules

Before the holiday gathering or the meal is underway, establish some ground rules, recommends Dr. Steven Berkowitz, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Berkowitz said to remind everyone first off: “We are friends and family, remember those relationships.”

Do it ahead of time by email, phone, Facebook, Snapchat, or even in person right before everyone digs into the crudités and turkey – whatever works for your crew.

How to talk about politics during Thanksgiving dinner 05:29

Limit time with difficult people

If your political views are 180 degrees from the outlook of some of your relatives, your best bet is to plan ahead and avoid the relative who may trigger you.

“If you’re more liberal, for example, do you really want to engage in a conversation with conservative Uncle Bob? It’s oftentimes not worth the effort,” Ken Yeager, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told CBS News.

If you do find yourself boxed into a corner with a difficult and opinionated person, it might help to gently suggest the conversation focus on events and facts.

“It’s a matter of addressing issues and not personal viewpoints,” said Yeager. 

“This is very difficult,” Yeager said. “You can also say that you don’t want to have the discussion because it upsets me.”

Listen well

If you do find yourself tangled in a fiery conversation about politics – that you may or may not agree with -- and you actually want to have that conversation because it is stimulating and interesting, be a good listener, said Yeager. It doesn’t mean you have to agree.

“The overwhelming majority of people hear about the first three sentences you say and at that point are trying out in their mind the best things to say next to convince you that you’re wrong,” said Yeager.

Get your facts right, too, before you quote an outside source. There’s a lot of false information piped into people’s social media feeds that they end up using in conversation to prove a point, Yeager said. What they don’t realize is that all of that information may be tailored directly to their beliefs and interests, and much of it could be from questionable sources.

Show regard. Penn’s Berkowitz said, “Be respectful. Listen to what the person has to say and respond respectfully in turn.”

Gearing up for Thanksgiving travel 01:55

No name-calling

Dr. Matthew Lorber, acting director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told CBS News that disagreeing family members need to avoid personal attacks on each other and on individuals they are discussing, especially yelling and spewing unkind names.

“People seem to think that raising your voice gets you heard, but in truth, other people are less likely to take in what they’re saying,” Lorber explained.

“No yelling, no raising voices, no calling Hillary Clinton a dumb socialist or Donald Trump a narcissist,” he said.

You may feel these things, but there are more constructive ways to get ideas across than using words such as “Nazi,” “bigot” or “racist.”

Lorber said name-calling just causes the other side to “put shields up and there won’t be any productive conversation.”

Take it outside

Be the voice of reason, if political conversation between others gets out of hand. Suggest they cool it or take it out of earshot, even outdoors.

“If there are political squalls, suggest they move the conversation to another room, or remind them that there are children present,” said Yeager.

Just the fact that they have to walk somewhere else could put a road bump in the conversation and calm things down.

Defuse anger

There are multiple ways to shift out of argument mode.

“Humor is best,” said Berkowitz. 

He also suggests making a stop sign or a peace sign that you can hold up when things get too confrontational. You can always offer food, too. It’s hard to yell at someone through a mouthful of pie and ice cream.

Stay home

Leave the party early if things get too heated, or don’t go at all, advises Yeager.

“We can choose where we want to go for a holiday and this may be a holiday time when we choose not to go any place. Or, to go to a place that’s good for you based on this election cycle,” he said.

Limit alcohol

Alcohol may seem like a good idea – holiday cheer and all -- but it loosens inhibitions and can make things worse, said Berkowitz.

Hosts, especially those anticipating some stress between relatives, may want to limit the amount of alcoholic beverages served at any event.

Be aware of the kids

Should kids hear adults arguing about politics? Berkowitz told CBS News it’s okay, as long as no one’s threatening, cursing or violent.

“With that said, [kids] under 11 to 12 years of age should not be exposed if possible. If they are, it needs to be processed with them by a parent or another caring adult,” Berkowitz said.

Yeager said while it’s important to protect young children from disturbing arguments, kids need tools to cope with disagreements and the country’s current volatile mood.

“My father was in World War II, in the South Pacific. My father was not able to assure me I wouldn’t be drafted. My brother was draftable age. But he was able to have conversations about what it meant to serve and what it meant to him and how it helped him become the adult he became. Interestingly, he did not once share with me a war story, but he said every story ends with tears and broken hearts. It shaped me,” Yeager said.

“We, as the older generation, need to be willing to have those kinds of conversations,” he said.

Lorber said the holidays are a great opportunity to model good behavior for children.

“Show your children how two people can compromise and respectfully listen to each other,” he said. 

Be sensitive to those with health issues

There may be guests and family members at the feast table who are struggling with health issues, for whom any kind of emotional upheaval and arguing are unsettling.

“Older, more sensitive, or tired relatives. Those with neurodegenerative diseases and dementia [such as Alzheimer’s]. The mentally ill. Developmentally disabled people. For all of the above, turn the news off,” said Yeager.

For the elderly, consider watching television shows from your grandparent’s generation, he suggested.

“Buy them the boxed set of ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ It’s a form of reminiscent therapy and takes them back to a more stable time in their life. Get them a boxed set of ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ or whatever they loved or introduce them to ‘Downton Abbey,’” he said.

Berkowitz said depending on a person’s mental health issue, they can become more depressed, anxious and paranoid when tempers flare.

“Those with a history of self-injurious behavior and suicide attempts may respond to the stress by doing them again,” he said.

Autistic children may also act out and be more at risk for self-injuring behaviors.

Give back

If you’re heading to a home where a sibling, parent or grandparent or other friend or relative is doing most of the cooking, bring along a giving spirit or gifts.

“Making a gift with your own talent and own skills is very meaningful,” said Yeager.

Or if you know they place more value on monetary gifts, bring a gift card as a thank you. You can help with dishes and keep their children occupied while they cook.

Be thankful

Remember what holiday it is and why you’re all together in the first place.

“Thanksgiving is for giving thanks for what you’ve gained from the generations before you, for remembering those in your family who came before you and for giving thanks for what they gave you. Always remember what they gave you and for contributing to who you have become,” said Yeager.

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