11/21/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

5 Tips for Minimizing Family Tensions Over Thanksgiving

Family gatherings over the holidays usually involve heightened emotions of all kinds. Such events might begin with an atmosphere of joy, connection, love and caring but they don't always end on the same note. Unwelcome guests in the form of simmering tensions, long-standing frustrations, guilt-trips, rejections, slights and other hurt feelings often crash the party, and ruin the mood and fun for all involved.

Here are five simple tips that will set the right tone and help minimize family tensions during holiday gatherings.

1. Have Correct Expectations. We tend to associate the holidays with loving, close-knit, family togetherness and forget how rare such moments actually are. In order to avoid a rude awakening we must shed our Norman Rockwell fantasies and develop realistic expectations by reminding ourselves of both the highs and low moments of holidays past. If Uncle Stan always asks annoying questions and Aunt Sally never puts food in her mouth before questioning its identity -- "Is this red lumpy thing the cranberry sauce?" -- expect the same this year. Having realistic expectations will make it far less annoying when Uncle Stan asks whether vegan pilgrims used tofu and Aunt Sally stares at her bowl and mumbles, "Is this liquid thing the soup?"

2. Make Thanksgiving About Thanks. Ask participants (in advance) to write three things for which they are grateful. Collect the lists when people arrive and place each of them in a jar. During quiet moments or breaks in the meal, read them aloud and have family members guess who wrote each one. Focusing on thankfulness and gratitude will create a positive mood and atmosphere and help reduce tensions and dissatisfactions.

3. Invite Someone Less Fortunate. Inviting an unemployed neighbor, a military veteran who just returned from overseas, a friend who suffered a loss or a relative going through hard times can have a surprisingly uplifting impact on everyone. The presence of an "outside" guest often allows us to see ourselves through that person's eyes and by doing so, realize the many ways in which we are blessed and fortunate. It is a simple way to make the holiday more meaningful and memorable for all.

4. Get Everyone Involved. The more we invest effort in something the more we care about it. Therefore getting everyone involved is a great way to increase cooperation and good cheer. Invite in-laws and non-family members to bring something that represents their own family's traditions (e.g., a specific dish or decoration). Recruit children to make decorative arts and crafts or be in charge of announcements such as, "Dinner will be ready in 10 minutes!" or "Grandpa wants everyone to check if you're sitting on his dentures."

5. Don't Make It a Marathon. It's not unusual for gatherings to last several days, which means it's crucial to plan breaks and free time. Togetherness is wonderful, but spending every moment with one another is not. Prisons avoid extended lockdowns for the same reason -- uninterrupted proximity is a natural incubator for tensions. Include stretches of free time and outdoor fun and reconvene for big meals and specific activities. Lastly, keep the actual dinner to a reasonable length. Remember, the original marathon runner dropped dead after the race and he didn't have five servings of stuffing in his system.

Have a wonderful holiday!