Advice on How to Deal With Family Politics and COVID-19 Concerns This Thanksgiving

Feeling anxious about seeing your family this Thanksgiving? Check out these tips from Peter T. Coleman, of Teachers College, on how to avoid uncomfortable conflicts and enjoy your holiday.

Caroline Harting and Acacia O'Connor
November 17, 2021

Many families are gathering in person for Thanksgiving for the first time in two years, which, for many, is a welcome change from eating turkey and pie over a Zoom call. However, holidays are often fraught for families, and this year, the lingering COVID-19 pandemic and continuing political polarization could add to the potential conflict.

Columbia News asked Peter T. Coleman, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College and the author of “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization,” for his advice on how to steer through the sometimes murky waters of family get-togethers.

Q: Every family has conflict in its own way. What can we do in advance of Thanksgiving to try to relieve some of the inevitable tensions?

A: First, spend a little time reflecting on you. Here is an article about the stress we are all under, with a link to a short assessment that can provide a bit of feedback on how you might tend to respond to conflict when anxious/tense. 

Second, give a bit of thought to what you hope to help see happen over Thanksgiving. We often launch into automatic forms of debate with others on political issues. This can be fun and interesting, until it escalates, gets out of hand, and then spoils a family gathering. If you have a family member where the probability of this happening is high, then you might head this off by reaching out to them beforehand and asking if it would be OK with them if you NOT do this during Thanksgiving, but offer to go for a walk with them before or after when you can try to have a different type of private conversation.

Excuse the shameless self-promotion, but for such conversations, you might consider reading my latest book. Short of that, you should look at this tip sheet on how to have constructive conversations on divisive topics.

Q: How can family members navigate differences around COVID behavior? Say you have dinner guests who are not vaccinated and don’t wear masks, but others are fully vaccinated and/or always wear masks indoors?

A: If these differences exist in your family, it is the responsibility of the convenor to address it. I would ask myself, who is the most trusted member of our family, someone who most of us go to when we have problems? I would then reach out to this person and ask for their help in reaching some type of understanding and agreement among the whole group on how to proceed. This might take time so I would act on this right away before the day. Distrust is very high across the political divide on this issue, that we will want to leverage the trust that already exists in the family system to address it. But address it we must.

Q: If there are differences in COVID behavior among family members, it’s possible that there might be political disagreements. How can we manage or coexist with people with different points of view? How do we handle a conflictual conversation once one begins?

A: I do not recommend having cross-partisan political debates at Thanksgiving, unless doing so has proved to be constructive before. These are toxic times and these conversations can trigger divisions that are extremely hard to repair. So proceed with caution.

Q: At what point is it best to simply not attend a gathering if we anticipate too much difference or conflict? How do we make that assessment?

A: This, of course, is a very idiosyncratic and personal decision. But reflecting on this and preparing for it beforehand is critical. Not showing up is an action and is likely to send a clear signal. This may be worth it from your point of view as you may see it as inflicting less harm than going. However, understand that not showing up is likely to have consequences for your relationships. If you decide to stay away, I would recommend informing people beforehand in as clear and respectful a way as possible.

I will conclude by saying that if you are experiencing difficult conversations and divisions within your family or friend groups these days, you are not alone. Fifty percent of Americans report that they are. This is a problem that is part of decades of forces pulling us apart in the United States and is unlikely to be solved at the interpersonal or family level. But we can do what we can to keep it from getting worse, and it can start with each of us choosing to reset and choose a different way forward.