Part Five: ‘Tis the Season to be Annoyed: What to do when Grandparents “Parent” Your Children

In the holiday cult-classic, National Lampoon‘s “Christmas Vacation”, Clark Griswold aspires for holiday perfection amidst a visit from his dysfunctional family. Yet the prospect of visiting loved ones can be quite a daunting challenge to many of us—including the Griswold family.  Daughter Audrey Griswold asks her mother: “Would it be indecent to ask the grandparents to stay at a hotel?”  Mother, Ellen responds: “I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.” Last week, I discussed how, in some circumstances, seeing our families over the holidays is not just disruptive to our lives—it’s self-sabotage. This week, I called on my colleague, Dr. Mark Novitsky, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Potomac Psychiatry, to add more depth about how you can reduce the stress of spending time with family over the holidays, which can be so harrowing for many of us this time of year.

His advice focuses specifically on a particularly disruptive area for many parents: How can you effectively manage “the grandparents” when family comes to visit—especially those grandmothers and grandfathers who may be particularly overbearing with their grandkids? Is it possible to handle these situations without acting on the strong emotions you or your spouse may be feeling? Is there a way to reduce the inevitable emotional triggers that your parents may provoke, such that you can have better self-control and behave less reflexively—a way to avoid sabotaging the tender, special relationships between grandparent and grandchild? Dr. Novitsky answers with a clear “yes”. His information will not only make the end of the year more bearable… I believe it will help you end some typical #SelfSaboteur habits, once and for all.

Following are Dr. Novitsky’s quick tips to help avoid the misery and allow you to enjoy the hap hap happiest holiday since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Kaye

  1. Embrace traditions both old and new.

It is important for parents to appreciate the importance of family traditions as it helps provide connectedness between the generations.  For grandparents, it can be a way of paying respect to loved ones who are no longer with us—or even reliving their own fond memories of childhood. Yet, it is important to realize that you and your children may be starting holiday practices of your own, so be sure to incorporate grandparents into these novel traditions.

  1. Communicate in advance—try to meet halfway.

Appreciate that there will be differences in parenting.  Prior to a visit with grandparents, it can be helpful to communicate your expectations of them for your children.  If disagreements occur, it helps to shield your children from these differences.  Remember to pick your battles though—for issues that you deem to be extremely important, stand firm; however, when possible try to meet halfway.  Rather than reflexively shutting down ideas, it may be helpful to ask a grandparent, “Can you help me to understand why you think that would be good idea?”  Even if you ultimately decide differently, it shows that you at least considered their input and have treated them with respect. One prime area of disagreement can be holiday gifts for the kids. It is not uncommon for grandparents to want to show how much they love their grandchildren by showering them with presents.  Parents may perceive this “generosity” as a competition.  It would be especially important to agree upon expectations for gifts prior to the children opening them, as the idea of taking gifts back could create a negative experience for the children.

  1. Be flexible but don’t abandon routines.

Establishing routines is an essential duty of parenting, as it allows children to structure their day and accomplish daily expectations.  As a parent, you have worked hard to reinforce these healthy habits (flashback to sleep training!) and the holidays are not a time to undo all of the hard work that you’ve done. Incorporate the assistance of grandparents to help your children maintain routines. However, it is important to appreciate that with visitors and holiday festivities, routines may be altered to some degree. In these situations, it can be helpful to understand that adaptability to change is another skill essential for children to learn.

  1. Identify and manage triggersto avoid self-sabotage.

Your parents have a personal history that has shaped their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, both good and bad. What is that history? What traumas and setbacks have they endured? How is their current health? Have they lost anyone close to them in the past year or two? How do they find happiness and satisfaction in their own lives? How are they coping with growing older, and with their own impending mortality? Trying to answer these questions, alone or with your spouse, can help to mitigate your emotional response to the typical triggering behaviors of your parents. Try not to objectify your parents by playing those familiar narratives in your mind, such as “Mom is trying to control me and tell me what to do,” or “Dad never listens to what I say and just does what he wants.” Try to have empathy and compassion for where they are in their own lives and put their behaviors into that context.

In short, Dr. Novitsky suggests that you try to take a step back and reframe the holiday experience with grandparents in a positive way. Beyond the glitz and glitter of the holidays, lies the true essence of the season:  The holidays are a time to value the loved ones we have in our lives. But then again, these helpful pearls are not limited to the parenting with grandparents just around the holidays—after all much like Clark Griswold’s Jelly of the Month present, Family may be the gift that keeps on giving all year round. If your family feels like anything but a “gift,” please read my blog, “Avoid Your Family Over the Holiday Season: Here’s How”


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