Managing Family Disapproval at Holiday Time

Q. I have worked hard to raise my boys, 5 and 8, very differently from how I was raised. I have followed your principles of Connective Parenting and want to stick with them. One of my boys is very strong-willed and, as you say, “won’t take no for an answer”. The other is a gem, so easy to get along with. With holiday gatherings coming up with old-school parents and in-laws, do you have advice on how to handle unwanted, critical remarks that leave my 5 yr. old feeling angry and reactive whenever they are around—not to mention what a failure I feel like.

A. When you choose to parent differently from the methods of your parents, you are always at risk for being criticized. Your parents and in-laws likely feel threatened by how you are raising your boys and assume you disapprove of how you were raised (this may be very true). If you are not asking their advice and following their traditions, you are clearly going your own way, and they may feel discarded and even wronged. The hard part for you is to stay neutral and not take their criticism personally—it is all about the one giving the criticism. You do not have to buy into it.

Try not to react. Easy to say, I know. The more you stay calm, the easier it will be for your children to remain calm. Remember that no matter how judgmental they may be, they are trying their best. They want their grandchildren to be happy just like you do. They just don’t know all the new information that you know and think their ways are tried and true.

Mom on the Phone

If you are worried about their reactions to your strong-willed child, perhaps a phone call before you get together could help. Let them know the current struggles you are having and what you have found works best. Add that your new understanding of how your 5 yr. old’s mind works constitutes a work-in-progress and what you need most is their support in the methods you are working with. Remind them of what you might expect from your son and go over how you would like everyone to handle it. That might be nothing in order to allow you to handle it. Let them know that you will ask for help or advice if needed but would rather it not be offered unsolicited as it confuses your son.

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 son behaves inappropriately, do not react punitively out of embarrassment just to get approval from the others. As you know, your child’s humiliation only adds to the stress and makes matters worse.

If a situation occurs, remain as calm as possible, excuse the two of you, and take your child into another room to handle it. They will know you are doing something and you will not have their scrutiny. Do your connective communication with your child and discuss the choices he has about re-enter into the group.

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. Let it happen and bring the situation up with your child when you have left. “That must have felt scary when grandpa yelled and told you not to talk like that.” “I wonder what you thought when Grandma told you to sit still in your chair.” Allow him to say whatever he wants. When you acknowledge the feelings you assume your child experienced, he will not take in the shame but learn that his feelings were normal. Then you can problem solve. “If that happens next time, can you think of anything you’d like to say?” You can also do some prep work. “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/would you like my help?”

Criticizing or confronting your relatives will only result in more of what you don’t want. They want to feel helpful but don’t know how. By asking them for their support and being specific with what to do if your son behaves a certain way, they can feel helpful. If they are still critical of your “new-fangled” ways, let them know that without their support, you will have to go it alone. Remember you cannot control someone else’s behavior—only your own.

A couple possible approaches:

“Sam gets stressed and overstimulated very easily these days. He gets dysregulated (big words may give you more validity!) when things aren’t going the way he expects. He needs to feel some personal control before he can calm down. Sometimes I let him take charge of a situation if I think that will help him regulate.”

“I know you want the best for Sam and have some concerns about what I am choosing to do. I’ve been learning a lot about ways to help him feel strong and confident which I’m sure look different from what you think is best. I would really like your support right now as it helps me help him. When I feel criticized, I fall back on behavior I know only riles him up.”

The When Your Kids Push Your Buttons Audio Course
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  • Understand your reactions and gain control of them
  • Interpret your child’s behavior
  • Set appropriate expectations
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Related articles:

The Lessons of Stress

How to Stop Reacting In the Heat of the Moment

Opening Up communication So Sadness and Stress Doesn’t Turn To Depression

Connective Parenting

Control Vs. Problem Solving and Balance

If I Don’t Punish or Give Consequences, What DO I Do?