Handling Family Conflicts During the Holidays

Here's how to keep family squabbles from snowballing--and put the joy back in the holidays.

Holiday Moods

To Erica Fisher, of White Haven, Pennsylvania, the holiday season feels like a huge juggling act. "My son is the only grandchild, so everyone wants us at their house for Christmas. The holidays are particularly hard for my mom, because my dad passed away three years ago. And Christmas Eve is my father-in-law's birthday. I feel like I'm trying to take care of my mother, appease my in-laws, keep my husband happy, and make things fun for my son. It's impossible."

Similarly, Jennifer Whipple, of Aurora, Illinois, rarely finds herself feeling jolly. "We're always dragging our kids from one family's house to another and loading and unloading gifts. My husband and I dread the holidays."

No matter how much you've got on your plate, you deserve to enjoy December--and to have your children be the center of your celebration. Here, experts offer no-nonsense solutions for your toughest extended-family dilemmas.

The holidays make me so anxious. I'm always worried about whether everybody else is having a good time.

The sooner you realize that you're not personally responsible for meeting everyone's holiday expectations, the happier you'll be. "Sit down with your spouse, and talk about what really matters to you," advises Blaine Fowers, Ph.D., author of Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness (Jossey-Bass, 2000). Although it might be important to your mother-in-law for everyone to gather at her sister's on Christmas Eve, you should hang out at home with the kids and bake cookies for Santa if that's what you'd rather do. If you've received ten party invitations and fear that the kids will be spending more time with a baby-sitter than with you, decide with your spouse which events you can skip.

Now that we have kids, we just want to stay home. Is that a crime?

"Not at all--it's important to start your own traditions," says Leslie Vernick, a clinical social worker and author of How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong (WaterBrook, 2001). "Many families have a more relaxing and meaningful celebration when they stay home," she says. "The kids enjoy their new toys, and everyone can recover from the excitement and lack of sleep that usually come with the holidays."

Don't be surprised, however, if your parents or in-laws are miffed about your decision. They have their own image of the perfect Christmas and may have been looking forward all year to having their grandchildren gathered around the tree. Let them know about your plans as early as possible, and invite them to come to you instead, if you'd like. Or you might suggest an alternate occasion, such as a summer reunion, when you'll have time to enjoy each other's company. If your relatives live far away, look for fun ways to be present in spirit--by sending a tape-recorded message to be played on Christmas morning, for example, or by e-mailing digital photos of the kids with their just-opened presents.

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