Ground-rules for a great Thanksgiving

Putting boundaries in place before the family converges can head off a dysfunctional dinner

Special to The TribuneNovember 10, 2011 

Thanksgiving is a time for families to gather and celebrate their love and connections. But in some households, this concept is as foreign as a low-carb pumpkin pie.

In these contentious homes holidays invariably devolve into a melee. Someone brings up a painful subject from the past. Another wants to debate the current tax laws. A third keeps asking probing questions about delicate or embarrassing topics.

The result is another holiday fiasco replete with hurt feelings and abrupt, stony good-byes.

While such antics may be tolerable to some individuals, they undoubtedly bring heartache to others. “I’d love my family to be able to celebrate the holidays together,” a woman recently told me. “There’s no way they can get along for the entire meal.”

Rather than risking a meltdown or having members refuse to attend, it’s time for functioning family members to take charge. Don’t tolerate your adult children’s bad behavior. Don’t allow your brother to flirt with your girlfriend. Expect that everyone shows up, smiles and plays nicely the entire event.

To facilitate this happening, it’s wise to create your own Rules of Engagement. Delineate a code of behavior for everyone to follow that guarantees a pleasant experience for one and all.

Begin your ROE with a preamble, a carefully worded paragraph that sets the tone for the rules to follow. Express your undying love for each family member and state your wish that the whole family can assemble for an enjoyable Thanksgiving dinner.

Acknowledge that the group has had its problems. Don’t go into specifics. And certainly don’t name names. Instead say, “I know our family has had some issues. Mistakes have been made in the past. Emotions have been raw. My hope is that we can change this pattern and make it possible for us to do better in the future.”

“My only goal is that we have a lovely Thanksgiving together. I hope that this is your goal, too. When we all agree to a common purpose, we can make sure our actions support the ultimate outcome.”

Next, lay out your rules. Keep them positive and brief. Don’t direct them toward any one person. But do address particular issues facing your clan.

Invite others’ input. Perhaps they have suggestions of their own. You want everyone to feel invested in your ROE. Open dialogue is a key component.

But while you welcome group involvement, it’s wise to keep things under control. You retain the right to edit all suggestions. You can omit those that don’t feel right. Remember, this document is your brainchild.

You don’t want anarchy to erupt.

Close your ROE with a touching, heartfelt message. Warmly express how much the family means to you and how you know things can be different.

Remind them that everyone is supremely valuable to the well-being of the household. Each person plays an irreplaceable role. The family wouldn’t be the same without all members’ unique sets of skills. That’s why it’s so important that we collectively honor the individual and make it safe for him or her to be in our group.

Send a copy of the rules out to all relevant households. Be patient as you field comments, questions and concerns. The very act of discussing appropriate behavior may have an impact and be enough to elicit desired changes.

Your wish is that all family members will show up and follow the guidelines. Of course, it’s their right to refuse. Remind them again how much you love and want their attendance. The decision is ultimately up to them.

A sample list of rules of engagement

Looking for a list of possible rules? Consider these for starters.

Or assess your clan’s specific make-up and decide which issues are waiting to be addressed.

• Be pleasant at all times.

• Do not bring up hurtful issues from the past.

• Engage in appropriate dialogue.

• Discuss only mutually safe topics.

• Avoid possibly contentious subjects such as illegal immigration or gay marriage.

• Show up on time.

• Be helpful.

• Monitor your own consumption of alcohol.

• Do your best to get along with everyone at the gathering.

• Encourage children to play outside if the weather permits.

• Be attentive to your own children’s needs and actions.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit

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