HARRISBURG, Pa. — For many families, this Thanksgiving will be their first big get-together in two years. Think of everything that has happened since then: A global pandemic, contested election, a politicized vaccine, racial and social justice conversations, and much more.
That's plenty of fodder for your holiday feast and if the past has taught us anything, you never know what to expect when conversations start flowing at the table.
What do you do when things get awkward, or even potentially volatile in the middle of what was supposed to be a festive occasion? Or how can you prevent it from happening to begin with? Doctor Melissa Brown, a clinical psychologist with UPMC in Harrisburg suggests the most important thing anyone can do starts before the doorbell rings.
"I encourage people just to prepare for that family visit by knowing who's coming, and if you don't know who's coming, that usually sets you up for some potential downfalls," Dr. Brown said. "Know who family members are that are coming and what their personalities are, and create a plan for yourself and how to manage those conversations and topics that may come up."
Dr. Brown suggests having prepared topics or statements ready to go in the event you need to quickly get out of a heated conversation.
She says encouraging conversation outside of potentially controversial topics will help avoid politicized statements some family members may make. Should it get to the point where political comments are being made, Dr. Brown believes you should simply sidestep that potential conversation.
"That will help you manage your frustration level and avoid being hurt," she said. "Often, what people are trying to accomplish is just to be heard. They want their opinion heard, they want themselves to be heard. Simply acknowledging them and moving on sometimes is really helpful to take the air out of the balloon."
Even if some families got together last year, that was before the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, which has been a source of controversy and consternation for many Americans. Some families are requiring other family members to be vaccinated if they want to attend holiday gatherings.
Dr. Brown says if you don't mind being confrontational, it's best to just come right out, be direct, and ask about vaccination status.
"If you are not comfortable with that directness, ask how they are staying healthy. The goal is to keep everyone as healthy as possible so they can enjoy that turkey dinner, or whatever meal you might be having that day," Brown said.