I will be candid: For as long as I can remember, my relationship with my mother has been strained.
I sought her approval well into adulthood, but my mother rejected any attempts to repair the past and start anew: “I am never having that conversation, Mariko.” I eventually gave up.
Then life happened: I got married, moved to California, and had a baby. It was easy to manage expectations from 3,000 miles away, but we eventually returned to the East Coast when my first child, my son, was less than two. He’s now 12 and has a sister three years younger.
Sadly, our return coincided with the death of my beloved father, which only broadened the divide between my mother and me.
Our relationship may have been at its thinnest, but that did not dull her expectations of what it meant to be a grandmother. Torn between protecting my personal boundaries and modeling the importance of family as a mother myself, I started to dread the holidays.
December is an intense time of year and unresolved issues can make holiday stress even worse—especially if those issues involve grandparents who also have expectations that long-standing rituals continue.
But I’ve found there are strategies to help you survive the holidays and preserve your sanity. In fact, you can even enjoy the holidays and meanwhile teach your child a thing or two about forgiveness.
Since children are adept at perceiving tension in their parents, an important step preceding holiday get-togethers is to be honest with your own family about having had a challenging childhood.
It is never too late to have this conversation even if your children are already adults.
Alice Kaltman, a counselor at Family Matters in Brooklyn, encourages parents to be upfront about their childhood disappointments.
“Facing the holidays amid tension with grandparents actually poses an opportunity for parents to initiate an open conversation with their own kids,” says Kaltman. “The key is to remain calm and in control of our tone, without becoming emotionally affected, and to explain the past in broad-stroke terms.”
You don’t need to share any gory details, she adds.
Something like “Sometimes growing up in Nana’s house was disappointing or lonely and it’s my deepest wish that our family value closeness’’ is fine, she says. The point of this honesty is not to slam the grandparents, but to remind older and adult kids the importance of prioritizing kindness with their parents and siblings.
“Simply make the children aware that Mom might get tense at Grandma’s house, and rally their support,’’ Kaltman says.
According to her, this direct approach is most effective with children ten and up.
Have a plan
Now that your nuclear family has a better understanding of why you might be triggered over the holidays, it is also essential to have a plan in place for when pitfalls inevitably occur.
“Have a strategy meeting with your partner to discuss possible events that could upset one or both of you,” Kaltman says. “Agree on subtle nonverbal gestures to signal each other when you feel you’re slipping into regressive-mode. Plan to take as many breaks as you can with your partner and on your own.”
Planning ahead also means setting aside time to replace a negative running dialogue with a more positive one.
Start by mapping out on paper as much of the itinerary as possible and simply visualize yourself having an enjoyable time through the various traditions. The idea is to disrupt the inevitability of a having a terrible time.
Choose this year to derive as much joy as possible from all aspects of the holiday season—even around grumpy grandparents.
Being in the presence of a difficult elderly parent may conjure up a sense of deprivation and the best way to combat these strong feelings is to care for yourself with kid gloves.
Navya Mysore, a primary care doctor with One Medical based in New York City, says such care is key if you’re going to be in close proximity to relatives who cause you stress.
“When you’re visiting family it can be easy to fall out of your regular routine,” she says. “But doing so might actually increase your stress levels. If you normally go for a run in the morning or meditate before falling asleep, for example, try to continue that routine through the holidays.”
Part of maintaining your regular routine is also getting enough sleep, which makes it easier to deal with stress and to feel a greater sense of balance.
Alcohol may take the edge off in the short term, but research shows that it often has negative consequences on our quality and duration of sleep. Nothing makes stress and anxiety more unbearable than exhaustion.
Mysore shares simple strategies for not over-consuming both food and alcohol. For instance, if you’re drinking alcohol, alternate an alcoholic drink with water or a seltzer.
When it comes to the table, have a ready response for the food pushers in the house: “I’ve enjoyed what I needed to enjoy.”
One of the best ways to model forgiveness is for parents to encourage their children to spend one-on-one time with their grandparents over the holidays.
“It can be difficult to let go of the past, but being able to put resentment aside for the benefit of the grandchildren is a powerful act of forgiveness and love,” says Kaltman.
Be aware, she adds, that you might unconsciously resent your children for the positive bond they experience with their grandparents. Just being prepared for this possibility can often lessen the intensity and duration of those emotions.
Another way to feel less embroiled with difficult grandparents is to come prepared with light conversation topics.
“Pick non-loaded topics ahead of time, conversational tidbits that will keep your extended family engaged, but at a safe distance, she says. “Keep things as light and easy breezy as possible, even if you’re the kind of person who hates superficiality,” adds Kaltman.
A terrific way to detach and to relieve stress amid challenging family dynamics is to have a lifeline, a best friend whom you can call on a walk around the block or via text, discreetly, as needed. Make sure they are standing by to defuse tense moments, preferably with some humor.