Home for the Holidays: Stressful or Inviting?

Holiday table w:familyWhen 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.

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