Thanksgiving is a time of family celebration and gratitude, and some of us can hardly wait to see all our family again. For others of us, however, Thanksgiving dinner with all the relatives can also be triggering. Perhaps family was the source of our childhood trauma, or yawning political differences among relatives are making the holiday more loaded than usual – especially right after the mid-terms.

We turned to Bob Sege, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at Tufts University who studies childhood trauma and resilience, for his thoughts on the holiday. Sege developed the HOPE Project, a nonprofit to teach parents and providers how to create positive childhood experiences that can ease or even reverse the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and is an expert on healthy relationships. In a short interview here, he discusses ways to make the holiday more gratifying. 

For some people, Thanksgiving can be painful because of memories of childhood trauma,  or they feel lonely or they can’t afford a holiday feast. In your research on the Health Outcomes of Positive Experiences (HOPE) project,  you’ve found that positive experiences can help counteract the impact of childhood trauma. What are your ideas of what these parents can do to make Thanksgiving a more hopeful tradition? 

The first thing to understand is that to have a positive memory of Thanksgiving, you don’t need a greeting card memory. For Thanksgiving, almost everyone has something to be thankful for. In many communities, if you don’t have enough money to pull together a meal, your local church, mosque or synagogue may offer a communal meal together. Some families do community service on the holiday — kids learn to associate the two, and participating in community events also gives kids a strong sense of belonging and connectedness. 

Parents shouldn’t worry too much about the holiday– children are really good at being in awe of the world. It’s not too hard to create positive memories of Thanksgiving for children to carry into adulthood. I have fond memories of my mother’s food, which honestly wasn’t the best (laughs), but it was special to me.

During this time of political discord, some parents are nervous about potential conflicts  with their extended family at the Thanksgiving table. How might people with ACEs deal with a Thanksgiving dinner where tensions over opposing political views threaten to derail the holiday?

I think to the extent possible, it might be good to agree not to discuss politics at dinner — to make a part of the day that’s “safe.” But since there is conflict in the world, each of us has opinions and beliefs. I honestly believe that if children can see people who love each other can disagree and still love each other, that is really powerful. Parents may want to tell their children: “Oh, your uncle has some opinions that are totally crazy, but I love him anyway and we’re going to see him and have fun.”

What you think about the first-person stories on the internet in which people are refusing to go to Thanksgiving or cutting off their families due to different political beliefs?

We’ve heard those stories and they are troubling, but I think they’re outliers.  You know how it is — when a dog bites a man, that’s not big news. But when a man bites a dog, it is.

Gratitude is a big part of the Thanksgiving celebration. What do you think parents might do to increase the sense of gratitude in their children?

For me, gratitude is part of my religious and spiritual life and practice. There’s a spiritual discipline of training yourself to see what’s good in the world. In the horrible tragedy at the synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018, where 11 people were killed, we had police risking their lives to rescue people. The local mosques donated an amazing amount. Mister Rogers always said to look for the helpers, and we can teach our children to do that, to look for miracles… We can certainly find things to be thankful for. 

I have a cousin who had the worst time: For 10 to 20 years she was caught up in a war. You’d think she should be an evil, pessimistic, paranoid person, but she is just a delightful, warm person. Close your eyes and think of someone you know who had real problems during childhood and is a wonderful adult. The more we learn about resilience, the more we can help our children heal and be resilient.

An earlier version of this article appeared on a blog on Stress Health.

Type of work:

Diana Hembree, MS, is MindSite News co-founding editor. She is a health and science journalist who served as a senior editor at Time Inc. Health and its physician’s magazine, Hippocrates, for four years,...