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When your parents or in-laws visit for the holidays, do you anticipate tension and stress? Are you afraid that your child will misbehave and that you will buckle under pressure from the elders to punish or shame your child?

So many parents are working hard at finding a new way to parent—one that feels right to them and one that is quite different from the way they were parented. But something happens when the generations get together. Holidays can be fraught with anxiety when a look or a comment from a parent or in-law triggers self-doubt, and you cave under their authority and treat your child how you assume your parent or in-law thinks you should rather than the way you know your child needs.

When parents are not yet confident or fluent in their new parenting approach, they feel vulnerable in the face of one who was the authority figure for so many years. The temptation is often too great to resist what the authority thinks and parents do to their child just what they have been struggling to avoid.

When this happens to you, it is evidence of how responsible you still feel for your parents’ feelings. You care more about rocking the boat than sticking with your chosen plan. You have learned well to behave in a way that pleases them, that does not cause conflict for them—even when it does for you. This means a healthy boundary never got established and you have not learned that you are not responsible for your parents’ problems.

So if you buckle under the pressure you feel from your relatives—spoken or unspoken—you are under the spell of their authority and have not yet gained your own in that relationship. You remain in fear of what they will say or think about you if you disagree.

This may not be a big problem and it only lasts as long as you are all together, but when it interferes with your handling your children in the way you have chosen and having the support of your larger family network, then you are jeopardizing the messages you send your children. What they get is, You’re different when Grandma and Grandpa are around, You care more about them than me, Something’s wrong, It’s not fair.

They’re right. It’s not fair that you give priority to your parents’ feelings over your children’s. Not to mention having to compromise yourself with your parents, resenting them, and not having the relationship and support you need and want from them.

What to do? I know many of these suggestions may seem impossible or too risky to try, but if the outcome is resistance you haven’t lost anything. If the outcome is positive, you have gained more than you can imagine.

Think about whether it would be better or easier if you talk about this before the visit or wait for an altercation before saying anything. Also it might be something you keep to yourself if you can gain the strength to simply manage your children’s behavior the way you want.

Try some of these on or create your own. If you want to wait until a situation occurs, I recommend going over it and over it in your mind so that in the moment your emotions don’t undermine your intention.

Often we fear that if we want change in a relationship we have to be confrontational. Not true. Taking responsibility for yourself and the words you say never means being judgmental or critical.

Always remember that family members respond in the way they think they should. Their intention is to help even when it comes across as criticism. And you are still your parents’ little girl or boy. They may still be communicating the same way they were when you were little. They may not have allowed your relationship to grow beyond their authority over you. Now that you are an adult, it is equally your job to encourage the growth of that relationship rather than to remain stuck in old patterns.

Take note that if you want your children to be free of the bonds that blur the healthy boundaries necessary for independence to grow, you must be willing to allow them their own voice and give them the right to their own opinions (that doesn’t mean you have to agree). Doing that now will pay off in the relationship you have with them for the rest of your life.

When it’s “home for the holidays”, it is the rare adult who does not trip back into the role they played as a child within their family of origin. The same old feuds, difficult relationships, favoritisms, and grudges occur. Perhaps they are held beneath the surface, but active there none-the-less. Often home means nurturing, warmth, support, and familiar customs. But it can just as easily mean criticism, disapproval, discomfort, and for those raising their own children, humiliation, intimidation and insecurity as well.

Anticipation and stress can provoke a parent into relinquishing whatever authority they have with their children in the shadow of disapproving family members who expect well-mannered, pleasant children who do what they are told. Parents who struggle with high needs children hold their breath, hoping for good behavior and no scenes and easily fall victim to the authority and opinions of their parents and in-laws. It’s easy for those who do not experience the daily struggles of parenting to know just what this child needs. Unsolicited advice, disapproving looks, and uninvited discipline from parents, grandparents, in-laws and siblings can undermine even the strongest parent of a child reacting to the stress of the situation.

Parents who employ different parenting methods from the way they were raised may provoke defensive retribution from the older generation who may feel threatened and blamed for having “done it wrong”. So many unspoken standards and expectations cause a stressful environment and children are the litmus paper. If they are acting out, it’s a good indication the atmosphere is fraught with tension.

Advice to parents:

Try not to react to the opinions of others. Easy to say, I know. The more you stay calm, the easier it will be for your children to remain calm. If you are worried about what your family might say, perhaps a phone call before you get together could help. Let them know what your struggles are and that you need their support more than anything. Say you are in the midst of a work-in-progress and you don’t have all the answers, but you are trying your best. Remind them of what you might expect from your children and go over how you would like to handle it. Let them know that you will ask for help or advice if needed but would rather it not be offered unsolicited.

Parenting with an audience usually results in paying more attention to what we guess others think of us than we do the needs of our children. If your child behaves inappropriately, do not react punitively out of embarrassment just to prove to others you are doing your job. Your child’s humiliation will only add to the stress and make matters worse. If a situation occurs, remain as calm as possible and take your child into another room to cool down (both of you). Talk about it with your child when you are calm enough and discuss the choices about how to re-enter the room.

If your child is disciplined or yelled at by another family member, until you are confident to say what you want without angry confrontation, wait and bring the situation up with your child when you get home. “That must have felt scary when grandpa yelled and told you not to talk like that.” When you acknowledge the feelings you assume your child experienced, he will not take in the shame but learn that his feelings were normal. You can also do some preparation. “Remember last time we were at Grandma’s and such and such happened? If something like that happens again, how do you think you would like to handle it/how can you avoid that happening again?”

Criticizing or confronting your relatives will only feel threatening and may result in more of what you don’t want. Try not to react and when you can, ask them for their support in what you are doing even if they do not agree. Remember you cannot control someone else’s behavior—only your own.

Advice to grandparents, in-laws, aunts and uncles:

Holidays are embedded with stress.  Your children are doing their best and are probably upset about the same behaviors in their children that you are. But most of all, they worry about your disapproval. What they need is your calm support, love, and encouragement.

Even if they are parenting in ways you would not choose, do not offer unsolicited advice. And don’t worry if they are doing things differently than you did. Raising children today is quite different from the days you were parenting, and children face very different challenges. You will connect better with your children and grandchildren if you get on board with the methods they are working on and know that it is not easy. How they are actually parenting may not be how they want to parent. Show interest in learning new ways, and let them know that you want to support their plan. The more you do, the more they will ask for your advice and help.

Now that the jolly holiday season is upon us, are you worried about all you need to pack in to the next few days? Like many of us, you might be trying to be too perfect. Here are some last-minute ideas for making each holiday minute last.

  1. Make a list of what’s on your mind. If making a list is good enough for Santa, it’s a good idea for you, too. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, write down all the things that are on your plate right now. Don’t worry if the list goes on and on… keep writing till you’ve got it all. Then take a look. What can be put off until after the first of the year? What can you decide to eliminate altogether? What is really essential and fits with what you really want to do? Making a list will help you see that not everything is equally important.
  2. Find the fun. If everything seems like work, insert some fun… and remember that fun can seem like doing nothing at all. Go for a walk or a drive to look at holiday lights. Sing carols. Make hot chocolate and top it with whipped cream and sprinkles. If you’re lucky enough to have some snow, get out and play! Fun is where the good memories are. Make some!
  3. Slow down. Really notice what’s happening by slowing down long enough to look and listen. Watch your children’s eyes light up. Hear them when they chatter excitedly. Remember what it’s like to be a kid at Christmas and take the time to see that in your own children.
  4. Delicious doesn’t have to be fancy. Now is the time for comfort food that’s easy to make and everyone’s favorite. Save the new recipes and strange ingredients for another day. Right now, be nice to yourself and your family by enjoying meals that are stress-free and comforting.
  5. Stop spending. The impulse to be perfect sometimes makes us continue to buy long past the time we should stop. Realize that things don’t make children happy; happiness makes children happy. It won’t make your kids happy if you’re worried about how much you spent, if you’re hiding receipts from your partner, or even if the pile of presents reaches to the ceiling.

“Christmas comes but once a year,” the saying goes, but that doesn’t mean you should cram every possible holiday opportunity into a single month, a single week or a single day.

“Keep Christmas in your heart the whole year long” is another saying and now is the time to recall that the love we want to share this holiday season can continue to be shared every day on into the future. There really is no hurry.

So slow down. Enjoy yourself and enjoy your family. Don’t rush right through the holiday and out the other side like a freight train through a tunnel. Take the time it takes to have a lovely holiday time.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at