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Surviving Thanksgiving with a dysfunctional family

Ashley Austrew is a freelance writer who loves tacos, Target and screen time. Her work has appeared on Scary Mommy, The Stir, Mommyish and more.

Tips for protecting kids from toxic family members at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a chance to spend quality time with family and friends, and it's the perfect excuse to overeat pie, but for many of us, it's also a holiday during which we're forced to contend with toxic behavior from people we care about. It's hard enough to put up with a controlling mother or an aggressively political Uncle Frank when you're single and childless, but once you become a parent, protecting both yourself and your kids can seem an almost insurmountable challenge.

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Many parents have relatives who disagree with the way they're raising their children. Whether it's an aunt who refuses to believe your child really does have a gluten allergy or an overbearing grandma who purposely breaks your rules, it can be difficult to assert your parental authority and keep your boundaries for your kids in check while still maintaining a peaceful, picture-perfect Thanksgiving gathering.

"It’s very hard in our culture at Thanksgiving," says Dr. Jephtha Tausig-Edwards, a clinical psychologist based in Manhattan. "You have that beautiful Norman Rockwell drawing from the Saturday Evening Post that shows the family gathered around the table, and everyone’s friends with everyone. Well, we're related to people, but it doesn’t always mean we get along with them."

You can't control how others behave, but there are some ways to make the holiday less stressful for you and your kids. Here are some of "Dr. Jeph's" best tips on how to handle friends and family members who won't stop interfering with the way you parent.

1. Make a plan for addressing specific issues in advance

If you have ongoing parenting disagreements with a family member, chances are you know what's coming well before you get to the dinner table. The sheer dread of these interactions might give you night terrors in the weeks leading up to Turkey Day, but they're also a chance to prepare yourself and your kids for what's about to go down. "You can certainly modify your behavior and thoughtfully consider what you want to do to address conflicts ahead of time," says Dr. Jeph. "For example, you can say something to your child like, 'I know Grandma always wants to give you milk, but she doesn’t understand that you have a lactose intolerance. You know she’s going to offer milk, so please just say, 'no thank you.'”

Obviously, younger kids can't articulate these kinds of responses, but children 6 or older can certainly be enlisted to help in their own care and enforce the rules.

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2. Stay calm, even when you feel shamed or disrespected

"With a lot of stuff, the less weight you give it, the less importance your child will give it as well," says Dr. Jeph. For example, if a grandparent gets flustered because your child got a bad grade at school, forgot to use proper manners or is still using a pacifier at age 3, it's OK to make light of it and to diffuse the situation in a positive way. Advises Dr. Jeph, "You can always look at your child and say, 'Isn’t Grandma being kind of silly right now?' You can wink, or sort of turn it into a little joke, because if you react like, 'How you can say that? You’re undermining my parental authority,' like it’s a real threat, then your kid’s going to absorb it and take what Grandma and Grandpa are saying more seriously too."

3. Don't hesitate to redirect inappropriate conversations

Sometimes people disrespect your boundaries simply by being inappropriate in front of your children. This Thanksgiving, in particular, there's likely to be intense political discussion, and it can turn ugly pretty damn quickly. "If someone wants to talk about sex, politics or religion and be very confrontational, you can always redirect," says Dr. Jeph. "You can say, 'You know, we’ve got younger kids here. Maybe we can talk about something else.'"

If they're not amenable to redirection, you can also tell the family member you're interested in discussing what they're talking about, but you want to do it without an audience. If things really go south, it's also OK to excuse yourself and your child. Says Dr. Jeph, "You’re not chained to the table, and if things are very uncomfortable, that may mean it's time to take a break."

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4. Be honest with your kids about what's going on

Grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives are important figures in our kids' lives. We don't ever want to poison our children against people, but sometimes we do need to acknowledge that there's a conflict. For example, if you have a family member who drinks too much and gets belligerent and scary at the Thanksgiving table and reliably refuses to change their habits, you don't want to pretend it isn't happening. "Kids are going to put the pieces together," says Dr. Jeph. "You don’t have to make a big deal about it. You can just say, 'Aunt Polly gets a little upset at Thanksgiving,' and then go into another room. When they're older you can say, 'Your aunt does have too much wine. It's not a good idea, but she doesn’t want to stop, so when she gets like that, let's take a break."

Whatever you do, don't lie. "As one of my mentors said, 'As far as children go, they’re not stupid, they’re just smaller than we are,'" explains Dr. Jeph. "You don’t want to sweep things under the rug, because that reduces your credibility as a parent."

5. Don't be afraid to set and enforce firm boundaries

It's not always easy to confront people you love. If you have a good relationship with someone who's crossing your boundaries or behaving inappropriately around your kids, you can try talking to them calmly and privately. But if talking isn't an option, sometimes you have to take more decisive action. If someone just isn't getting that you're uncomfortable with how they relate to your child, it's OK to limit the time they spend together, make sure they're only around your child when you're present or even make other plans for Thanksgiving. "If somebody is very entrenched in their behavior and really doesn't wish to change, we can’t make them change," says Dr. Jeph. "It's OK to forgive yourself and give yourself permission to set clear boundaries. The bottom line is that, as parents, the safety and well-being of our children is paramount."

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