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Handling Family Conflicts During the Holidays

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.

My husband's family wants us to spend Christmas at their house, and my parents want us to be with them. How do we decide?

The best you can do is try to spend some time with each family. To find a good balance, think about whether either family places a higher priority on certain parts of the holidays. If your in-laws see Christmas Eve as the main celebration, for instance, spend that time with them and go to your family's on Christmas Day. If there's no clear preference or your families live too far apart, just alternate years. "Above all, let both families know that you love spending time with them and that you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings," Dr. Fowers says.

Why is it that no matter how much thought my husband and I put into our gifts for the kids, my in-laws always seem to outdo us?

It's not a contest--and when your kids get lots of gifts they adore, everybody wins. (Santa might be getting the credit for some of your coolest presents anyway, right?) "It's important to assume that your in-laws mean well," Vernick says. "Chances are, they're not trying to outdo you--they're just being generous. Many grandparents have extra income because they're no longer paying for kids or college, and they're thrilled to have grandkids to spoil." So be grateful that you can spend less time and money shopping and that your kids will know how much their grandparents care about them.

Help! My husband turns into someone I hate whenever he's with his family. He says that I'm a different person around my relatives too.

"When we're with our families, it's natural for us to take on the role of caregiver, troublemaker, baby of the family--whatever we were when we were growing up," says Pamela Jordan, Ph.D., R.N., an associate professor of family and child nursing at the University of Washington, in Seattle. "You and your spouse have long histories with your families, and breaking out of those childhood patterns takes teamwork." Calmly describe to your husband the specific behavior that you find annoying ("You may not realize it, but when you're with your brothers and sisters, you get a little bossy"), and ask him to do the same for you. Talk about what you can do to help each other be your usual selves. You might establish a signal or code word as a reminder, and check in with each other from time to time during the visit to see how it's going. Bottom line: Be patient and try to have a sense of humor--you've been a son or daughter and a brother or sister far longer than you've been husband and wife.

I want to curb the number of toys my kids get, and there are certain toys I don't want them to have. How can I tell my in-laws without hurting their feelings?

"You have every right to set limits on the number, the cost, and even the nature of gifts," says psychologist Eric J. Cohen, Ph.D., coauthor of You Owe Me: The Emotional Debts That Cripple Relationships (New Horizon, 1999). Just be sure to give your relatives a heads-up well in advance so they won't have to return things. Explain why you've made your decision and that you're doing what you feel is in your kids' best interests. You might give them a list of other ideas, such as a gift certificate for part of summer camp, magazine subscriptions, a charitable donation in the kids' names, or a savings bond for college. "Even if your in-laws or parents don't agree with your limits, ask for their support," Dr. Cohen advises.

Why do I always have to buy all the presents--even for my husband's parents and siblings?

You don't. You do, however, have to speak up and tell your spouse exactly how you feel. You might agree to get a baby-sitter and spend one weekend day together at the mall, or to both sit down at the computer and stay there until you've ordered a gift online for everyone on your combined list.

How can we avoid the personality clashes that naturally arise at extended-family gatherings?

It's possible that your relatives will be on their best behavior with your kids around, but don't count on it. "Prepare yourself for the inevitable conflicts, and come up with a game plan for how to respond," Dr. Cohen suggests. For instance, if your mother-in-law and sister-in-law always bicker after they've been together for a certain length of time, just plan to leave on the early side, or arrange with your spouse to take a walk or move into another room if things intensify. Tell your kids about issues that might arise, and assure them that it's normal for grown-ups to argue sometimes and that it doesn't mean they don't love each other. If necessary, plan to stay in a hotel rather than with family.

"Ultimately, the only person's behavior you can control is your own," Dr. Jordan says. "Don't let yourself get sucked into taking sides or playing referee. Just try to focus on the positive aspects of the holiday."

Copyright © 2002 Mimi Greenwood Knight. Reprinted with permission from the December 2002 issue of Parents magazine.