By Featured Guest: Mary DeMuth
While spending time with your extended family may bring back warm memories of holidays gone by, now that you’re a parent, you may worry about some of those pesky in-laws whose habits you don’t want your kids exposed to. Uncle George’s drinking problem. Aunt Sarah’s nasty mouth. That cousin’s addiction to porn. Grandpa’s shouting. How do you navigate the in-law landmines this holiday season? Five ways.
Set Boundaries Before You Go
Before you ever set foot in your in-laws home, have a powwow with your spouse (or if you’re unmarried, discuss it with a close friend) to determine what sort of boundaries you’d like to establish. If you can live with a little drunken behavior, but don’t want your kids to hear cursing or continual slander and gossip, decide that up front. The most loving thing you can do is to let your in-laws know what you will and won’t tolerate, all in a loving, firm manner. Decide what you will do beforehand if things get out of hand. It’s simply too hard to think logically when you’re in the heat of the situation. Examples of boundaries and decisions:
- If grandma gets drunk and starts slurring her words and smothering the children, we will leave.
- If Uncle Billy pulls out his magazine collection, we will send the kids outside and kindly ask him to put it back or we’ll have to leave.
- If Kaitlyn screams and yells, we will walk out of the room we are in, gather the kids and pray for her in another room.
These kinds of strategies and actions will give you peace as you enter the landmines of in-laws.
Go into the Situation with a Servant’s Heart
Instead of worrying about what will go wrong, once you’ve established your boundaries and strategies, choose to approach the gathering as a servant. Is your mother overwhelmed by too much company? Help her make dinner. Set the table. Have the kids do the dishes. Anything you can do to be a blessing to your in-laws may just diffuse a difficult situation. Be sure to rope your kids into this, maybe even giving what you hope to do a name, like “Operation Bless Grandma.”
Be Firm, but Loving
If your in-laws violate your boundaries, make you uncomfortable, or jeopardize your children in any way, state that clearly, preferring to remain emotionless if you can. Restate your expectations as well as your affection for the erring relative. But stick to your guns. “We really love being around you, Julie, but when you’re drinking too much, it makes us and the kids feel really uncomfortable. Thanks for inviting us, but we’ll have to leave now. Perhaps we can reschedule when you’re feeling better.”
Love Your Relatives with Your Words
The holidays aren’t the only times you’ll be around your family. Create a positive feeling in your kids toward their relatives by speaking well of them in public. If you have personal issues with your parents, keep that to yourselves, doing your best to promote a positive relationship between your kids and their grandparents. Kind words go a long way. That doesn’t mean you always minimize some blaring issues. Family secrets are painful to keep; giving your kids the burden of bearing them is an unfair yoke. Instead, speak the truth in love, in such a way that you’re showing the value of the errant relative while still voicing what they may struggle with. (Of course this depends on the ages of your children as to how much you share.) An example: “Yes, she struggles with controlling her temper, but we sure do love her. Let’s remember to pray for her before we see her again.”
Play Bingo in Your Head
The most ingenious method you can use as you face difficult in-laws is actually a little game you play in secret. My friend Joyce fills a Bingo card with all the inappropriate things she anticipates that her mother in law will say during an upcoming gathering. Instead of being shocked by her mother-in-law’s words, she smiles. When their visit is over, she revisits her Bingo card and crosses out her correct guesses. If she gets a Bingo, she treats herself to something fun like a pedicure. This lighthearted approach to family gatherings has helped her let go of a lot of tension, something her children have noticed, making for better family get togethers.
It is possible to navigate the minefields of inappropriate or difficult in-laws this holiday season. Set those boundaries. Strive to serve. Say it like it is, but with love. Sell the positive parts of you relatives with kind words. And strike out your Bingo card. With these strategies in your back pocket, you and your kids may just have the stress-free get together you’ve dreamed of.
Mary DeMuth is the author of 12 books, including You Can Raise Courageous and Confident Kids, 150 Quick Questions to Get Your Kids Talking, and Building the Christian Family You Never Had. She speaks around the country and the world about the family and living uncaged. She lives with her husband and three kids in Texas. Find out more at marydemuth.com.