Managing Extended Family During the Holidays

How to complain less, stick up for yourself more, and actually enjoy your time together

by Jill Ceder, LMSW

For many of us, the holiday season brings obligatory family time and interactions we'd rather avoid. Whether it's your mother-in-law sneaking cookies to your son after every meal or your father dishing out tough love to your daughter, our family members can do things we don't like – and find difficult to manage.

If you dread the family get-togethers of the holiday season, you’re in good company. A 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds woman report suffering long-term unhappiness and stress because of friction with their mother-in-law. Some women have more difficulty with their families than their in-laws because spending time with them can trigger emotions that date back to childhood. Watching your kids interact with your parents may remind you of the difficult parts of your own upbringing. Or maybe it's a hard adjustment if they are completely different as grandparents than they were as parents.

Here are some easy strategies for managing the emotions of this complicated time so that the holidays can more closely resemble the relaxing, connected time they promise to be.

How to figure out your priorities and set boundaries
The first step is to determine your priorities. Fighting a losing battle over Grandma's ice cream portions might not be worth the energy. But if she keeps giving your child huge toys that crowd your tiny city apartment, you probably want to let her know how difficult it is for you to store them. You might start the conversation by saying: "Mom, we really appreciate the gifts you buy, and we know you have good intentions, but we simply cannot fit all this stuff in our tiny apartment. Books are always welcome because we can fit them and Jack loves reading! He'd really love to receive those from you."

How to balance traditions
When you decamp to your in-laws for the holidays, there will probably be differences in how you celebrate the holiday. You are not obligated to take on all of your in-laws rituals, but things will likely go smoother for all if you are amenable to some. Family traditions usually bring a lot of joy to the people who follow them, and they often hope you will share in that too.

Even though it can be tempting, it's best to avoid comparing rituals or disparaging the ones you don't like. At the same time, if you have traditions that are important to you, and you want to pass those down to your children, it is completely reasonable to introduce these to your in-laws. Enlist your partner for extra support and present the ideas as a team. This way you won't have to completely give up your traditions, and your child gets the best of both families.

How to handle unsolicited advice
Giving out advice no one asked for sometimes seems to be part of the grandparent job description. It can feel like it is undermining you or challenging your role as caretaker. One thing to consider is that sometimes the older generation may give advice simply because they are not familiar with another way of doing things.

One way to handle tips that are out of step with your beliefs is to engage grandparents in an open conversation about how you are approaching a particular element of childrearing. It's also helpful to remind yourself that just because advice is offered, it doesn't mean you to need to take it. It also doesn't mean that what you are doing is wrong. You can just nod and smile as you keep on doing things your way. Remember that, this time around, you're the parent.

How to protect yourself and your kids
One of the hardest things to navigate as a parent is criticism aimed at your kids. If a grandparent calls your child messy or inconsiderate, you may feel defensive or interpret it as an attack on your parenting. The flip side of this kind of comment is that it can come from a grandparent feeling close enough to your child to comment on their behavior as if they were their own child. (So there's a kind of weird compliment in that.)

Some grandparents may make the comment in jest, but most of the time people say things that reflect their own issues. But if your feelings (or your child's feelings) are hurt, politely ask the person not to repeat the comment. You could start by saying that you are trying to teach your child to speak kindly about others, and it will help if they reinforce the message. And, of course, if your child feels insulted, show her that her feelings are important to you and demonstrate that you support her.

How to handle your emotions
No matter how strongly you feel (and all your feelings are valid) it's only going to hurt your spouse if you tell him you hate his mother. On the other hand, bringing up your concerns in a calm, nonconfrontational way can be productive, especially if he is willing to help you communicate your needs to his family.

Of course, you need a release for your emotions, and if you are truly enraged by your mother-in-law's actions, it's important to acknowledge these issues with your partner before they harm your relationship. It's also wise not to bad-mouth grandparents in front of your children. Studies show that positive relationships with grandparents contribute significantly to children's wellbeing. If you need to vent (and sometimes everyone does), your friends, therapist, and other people you trust are good choices.

Be kind to yourself
Be compassionate to yourself during the stressful holiday season. It's ok to acknowledge that spending five days with your family (blood relations or not) may not be your ideal vacation. But you do it because it's important to the people who are most important to you. Brainstorm ways to take breaks once you're there. Maybe taking the kids to the movies or taking a daily walk – alone  or with your spouse – will give you the space you need to enjoy group activities more.

When you have figured out what your needs are and come up with a plan to communicate them clearly and kindly, you will feel much less anxious as the holidays get closer. And, hey, maybe it will be much better than you expect! Maybe this holiday season you can actually enjoy the time together.

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Jill Ceder, LMSW

Jill Ceder, LMSW

Jill Ceder is a psychotherapist, writer and mother of two. She works with women, children, and families, specializing in parent support and education and maternal mental health. She is the Verywell.com Childcare expert, providing resources, tips, and information on all topics related to child care. Her writing has been featured in various parenting publications including Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project and Parent.co. You can read more of her writing on her website.

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