Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house you go!


Generations together HolidayHolidays mean relatives; Relatives can mean conflict. Now is the time to create supportive relationships.

When you anticipate getting together with your parents or in-laws at holiday time, do you get tense and stressed just thinking about it? Are you afraid your child will misbehave, they will not understand, and you will buckle under pressure from your elders to parent in ways you have been working hard to avoid?

So many parents are looking for new ways to parent—ones that feel right and are more respectful of their children—that might be quite different from the way they were parented. But something happens when the generations get together and we revert to old patterns. Holidays can be fraught with anxiety when a look or a comment from a parent or in-law triggers self-doubt. You cave under their authority and treat your child how you assume your parent or in-law thinks you should.

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 that authority thinks should happen, and parents behave in the way 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 for your child. 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 yet learned that you are not responsible for your parents’ problems and feelings.

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. You slip back into old impulses with your child and your child reacts.

This may not be a big problem and it may only last as long as you are all together, but when it interferes with handling your children in the way you want and having the support of your larger family network, then you may be 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 inner strength to simply manage your children’s behavior the way you want.

Things to say to gain cooperation without conflict:

  • I totally get that you want only the best for my kids. I am trying some different approaches and what I need most from you is your support.
  • I’m finding that Sadie has a very difficult temperament. In order to gain her cooperation, I find that I need to be understanding of where she’s coming from first.
  • I have tried what you suggest and it only exacerbates the problem with Jason. He will make the rest of the day miserable for all of us if I put him in his room.
  • I know you think I should be harder on her but I have found that that only means she will be harder on me.
  • I’ve been learning a new approach and it’s really hard to change old habits so I’m not getting it just right yet. I would really appreciate your patience and understanding that I am a work in progress right now.
  • You may not approve of how I am handling the situation but it is my choice for now, and I’d really appreciate your support rather than telling me what you think I should do.

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 requires 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. They are doing what they think is best. And you are still your parents’ little girl or boy. They may still be communicating the same way as 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 of being their little girl or boy.

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). That means it can get messy and frustrating when everyone’s agendas are acknowledged and considered. But establishing respectful relationships now will pay off in the relationships you have with them for the rest of your life.