Thanksgiving Table Discussions

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Dr. Corinne Masur

People are afraid this Thanksgiving– not of the usual dried out turkey, but of the discussions that are anticipated at the table. Some are even skipping Thanksgiving altogether, in order to avoid painful conversations and heightened tension at their usual holiday gathering places.

This year poses even greater challenges for families than in previous years. The interpersonal differences and conflicts that we expect to at the holidays are trumped by the election hangover. Families that have members who voted for both Clinton and Trump are grappling with what do do.

For those who have decided to meet anyway, and even for those who agree on the election results, there’s something else to consider: what will the children at the table hear and what does it mean to them?

Conflict of any sort, but especially loud conflict, can be scary to babies and children. And people sitting at Thanksgiving tables where the election results will be discussed are likely to experience and express conflict as well as angst, worry, and fear about what the future will bring.

What to do for the children? At what point is it time for them to be excused? And what do we say about why they need to be excused, about the discussion, the conflict, the disagreement, the worry and about the actual content of what is being said?

These are such hard questions – and parents all over this country are searching for answers to them.

For Clinton supporters, the next four years look bleak. Many are scared. Many are worried about what will happen to themselves and to their families, to friends who are immigrants, to LGBT loved ones, to the environment, to international relationships…the list goes on.

Trump supporters, on the other hand, may be worried about the opposition, which is already being voiced toward their new president elect. They may be angry about this opposition.

On both sides there are strong feelings. And while children can certainly listen to and take part in calm discussions where differences of opinion are voiced, loud, angry discussions are not helpful to their sense of safety and well being.

So here are my suggestions:

1. Prepare your children for what to expect:

Before the holiday, talk to your children about what may happen at Thanksgiving. Talk to them about the possibility that there will be discussions about the election, about President Elect Trump and Hillary Clinton, and that people may have strong feelings about them. Reassure your children by telling them that people can disagree on subjects, they can even raise their voices, but they can still care about each other and love each other. For example, you can say, “When we visit Aunt May, relatives will be there who have different opinions about the election. They will talk about what they did not like about Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump. They may even get upset. People have strong feelings about this election and not everybody agrees. No matter what people say, you will be safe at Aunt May’s and you can always ask me questions about anything that anybody says.

2. Bring distractions:

Before Thanksgiving, go out and get some art supplies, Legos, or small projects – whatever your children like to do – and take them with you, without telling your children that you have them. If you feel that a discussion is getting too heated, excuse the children from the table and set them up in another room, preferably out of ear shot, to do their surprise projects.

3. Process:

Each time there is a heated discussion, talk to your children afterwards. Ask them what they heard and what they felt. Let them ask questions about the experience.

4. Content:

If this is possible in your family, at the beginning of your gathering ask all assembled members to be mindful of the fact that children are present and to speak accordingly.

Also, have one person in the room who will stay mindful of how children are hearing the discussion and be willing to take the children elsewhere to play a game, watch a video, etc. if the discussion becomes too heated.

And what if your children ask why President Elect Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton does “bad” things?

You can tell children of any age that people are not perfect, that everyone makes mistakes, and that it is important to try to fix mistakes once they’ve been made.

You can also tell them that when people talking about politics are angry, sometimes they exaggerate or they say things that aren’t true. For example, someone in the family may have said something that was not true about Clinton or Trump. You can tell your children that it’s not the right thing to do and we try not to exaggerate or speak meanly about others, but when we are angry we may sometimes do this.

Also, remind your children that this country was born from controversy – that in forming this democracy, in writing the declaration of independence and the constitution, people disagreed and argued and finally compromised enough to produce finished documents. Educate your children about the value of debate and discussion. Tell them about the Supreme Court and Congress, and how very smart people continue to discuss and debate how best to govern our nation. For older children and teens, the film, “Lincoln” may be instructive – or you may find other films and/or books on this subject.

What if your children feel frightened because they overheard that President Elect Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing or doesn’t have good judgment or doesn’t have enough experience to be president?

In this case, as in the case with all questions coming from your children, you must try to walk a difficult line: reassure your child as much as possible in order for him or her to feel safe while also being as truthful as possible. So, for example, you might say that it’s true that President Elect Trump doesn’t have experience in government, but he’ll choose people to help him. And if your child says that they have heard that he is not choosing good people, then you can explain the system of checks and balances to your child, saying that there are three branches of government and no one gets to have all the power, which protects us when one branch isn’t doing a good job. With older children, you can take the opportunity to look up relevant information online and to learn about how our democracy works to protect us.

5. Turn Passive Into Active

For children who are feeling frightened or helpless in light of difficult family discussions or just because of the accumulated information they have received about this election, engage them in projects where they get to be active in helping. Have them write a letter with suggestions to President Elect Trump. Or have them write a letter of condolence to Hillary Clinton. Or ask them what they would do better if THEY were elected president and what they would like our democracy to look like.

And whatever you do, remember, this is a process. You can continue to talk to your children about different family members’ opinions, the way they expressed them, and about the election and its results for months to come.

So, good luck with this difficult Thanksgiving – and let’s all hope that at least the turkey will be moist this year.

 

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