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 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.
Here are some ideas for talking points to start the conversation:
- 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 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 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 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.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Bonnie Harris blogs at www.bonnieharris.com.