Parent wise

Holidays with the relatives

With Thanksgiving just behind us, Hanukkah already begun, and Christmas right around the corner, it’s a good time to take stock of family events and prepare for upcoming ones.

Holiday gatherings can be wonderful, happy reunions with family members or they can be fraught with tension that can’t be over soon enough. Tension is tangible when grandparents and in-laws have exacting expectations of the children and parents nervously come down harder on their kids to appease their elders. Parents fall into their old childhood role, children react to the tension and normally expected behavior can spiral out of control.

∎ “How can you let her get away with that?”

∎ “What he needs is a good spanking to learn who’s boss around here.”

∎ “ If I were raising these kids…”

∎ “You were never like that. What’s wrong with her?”

Or simply that disapproving look.

With all good intentions, grandparents step into their old parenting roles, and parents become the child they once were, influenced by what they assume to be their parents’ expectations rather than focusing on the needs of their child. The message to the child who witnesses a parent reacting in an unfamiliar way can be confusing and even scary: “Mom cares more about what grandpa says; I really don’t count. What’s going wrong? I hate it when my grandparents are here. It’s not fair.”

Much can be changed with a little foresight.

Parents, try this:

Have a family meeting to anticipate any problems based on past experience. Allow everyone to say what they like and don’t like about extended family gatherings.

Brainstorm with your kids what they can do if something happens they don’t like, if they get bored or angry, if a demand is made that feels unfair, etc. When children are engaged in the process, they are less reactive in the moment and far more likely to cooperate and problem-solve.

Ask them what they can do if a situation from the past happens again. Try role-playing so your kids can practice responding and not reacting. Let them know that conflicts can be handled with respect and consideration for others.

Discuss your expectations for manners and eating at the table. Take responsibility for your desire for polite behavior, rather than dumping your expectations on them. Ask for their cooperation. When they don’t feel blamed or threatened, they will more likely rise to the occasion.

Lower your expectations for young, active, impulsive children, and let your parents and in-laws know what those expectations are.

Talk with family members before their arrival about how you are currently handling discipline, and ask for their support.

Be confident of your parenting.

Try practicing one or more of the following so not to be reactive:

∎ “I know 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 gets overstimulated very easily. If she behaves badly, I will take her in the other room. More than one person telling her what to do will be too much for her.”

∎ “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 with me and your 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 what I need most is your support.”

Young parents are often looking for new and more effective ways to parent that may be different from the way they were parented. It can feel threatening to the older generation. When parents are not yet confident of their new approach, they feel vulnerable in the face of their authority figure, and are easily intimidated by expectations they may only assume. Misunderstandings abound.


Your job now is to relinquish parenting duties, hand over authority to your grown children, and be the support that your children need and want. Judgments or criticism of parenting styles that you may be concerned about can backfire on the children.

If you see something concerning, hold your thoughts until a time when you are all calm.

Here are some ways to own your issue, rather than blame:

∎ “I saw how hard it was to handle that situation with Sadie. Do you want to talk it through to see if we could come up with an idea that might work?”

∎ “I’m very interested in what you’re working on with Jason. I want to keep up to speed so I can offer help, if you want that.”

Your advice will be heard and requested only when your child trusts you to acknowledge their authority over their own child.

Your support is what your children need the most, whether you are confirming a job well-done or setting the stage to offer the help that they need.

And don’t forget the most important words you can possibly say:

∎ “I think you are doing a great job raising these kids.”

∎ “It’s wonderful to see how patient you are with your kids.”

∎ “I admire what you are doing with the hardest job in the world.”

Parents and grandparents alike want only the best for the children. Acknowledging how hard the job is can set the stage for support instead of judgment. The less tension there is around expectations both real and invented, the better job everyone will do.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting and founder of The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she teaches parent education classes. She is the author of “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” and “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With.” Email

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