© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2001, 2002, 2003
I've got hassles with my extended family. My husband's parents were
pretty strict, so that's his inclination, but I'm trying to raise our
children in more of an attachment parenting kind of way. So I get a lot
of unwanted advice and comments about me "spoiling" our kids, etc.
When children come along, relatives can be an incredible blessing or
something of a curse - and sometimes both at the same time.
Happily, there are lots of ways to keep things on a good footing with
Have confidence - Remember that you and your husband have the final say
about how you'll raise your children. The bottom-line is that you can
limit access to your child if you have to - which is a big threat to
most relatives. Similarly, if need be, you can get off the phone
quickly, change the subject if a conversation gets awkward, keep visits
short, or intervene in an interaction between your child and a relative
that's starting to go off the rails.
Be open-minded - Who knows: maybe they know something after all. You can
listen without committing yourself, without giving away your right to do
something different. You could try something new with a child and see if
it works; if you think of it as simply an experiment, it won't seem so
serious or tense. Hey, if it works, you'd want to know that, and if it
doesn't, then you can say you tried it.
Become knowledgeable about parenting - Knowing the facts behind optimal
parenting practices will put you on solid ground if there's a
disagreement with your partner or his family. Rather than getting into a
wrangle in which it's your opinion against their, you can calmly mention
that researchers have established XYZ facts - which are the basis for
your parenting style - and then move on to another topic.
Stick up for your child - and yourself - Definitely do not let relatives
treat your children in any way that crosses a significant line. For
example, if you were spanked as a child but you don't want that
happening with your toddler, make that known to any relatives who are
With your mate, it could help to establish some groundrules for how
you'll deal with the relatives. Like agreeing to never bad-mouth each
other. Or promising not to make firm commitments - from new parenting
practices to holiday visits - without consulting each other first.
How to make family visits work
There's an old saying that fences make for good neighbors. Boundaries
help people stay connected.
So, if need be, it's alright to put a time limit on visits. You can
always find a face-saving explanation. For example, if the in-laws are
coming over for the afternoon, you can let them know that you're going
to have to leave the house at 6 pm for some kind of meeting.
Or let's say you are traveling to visit your husband's family, but
you're concerned about it all getting a little overwhelming: set up your
own transportation so you can get out of the house, arrange in advance
for activities that will give you some breathing room (like a trip with
the kids to a local attraction), and make sure you have a private room
you can slip away to. Sometimes, staying in a motel nearby makes for the
How to get through an awkward situation
If things start getting tense:
Keep a sense of perspective - Keep in mind the big stakes on the table:
a cordial relationship with the relatives that lasts for years and years
- so try not to get upset, rigid, or argumentative about small issues.
Let's say that it really matters to Grandma to get a hug, even though
she smells funny to your two-year old daughter. Maybe it's alright to do
everything within your power - including promising her a chocolate cake!
- if she'll put up with that hug.
- Try to stay calm and civil. Help yourself
by imagining that a camera is recording you and will be played
back later for all to see. Remember that how you conduct yourself
can muddy the waters and undermine the high moral ground where you
want to take your stand.
- Establish that differences are OK, that
there are lots of ways to raise healthy happy productive children.
You might say something like: "Sure, you may be right, I know lots
of people have raised their children that way. It's that Bob and I
have decided to do it a little differently."
- Narrow the issue. For example, rather
than getting into a big debate about discipline, wayward youth
today, and on and on, just say: "Oh, Bob and I certainly believe
in discipline, in raising respectful well-behaved kids. It's
simply that we're confident we can accomplish that without
- Affirm your desire and intention to
support your children in having a good, long relationship with
Think of encounters with the relatives as visits to another culture or
country: local customs prevail, and it's usually not a big deal to
observe them for a little while. Take the long view: most upsets with
relatives work themselves out over time; often, a few years later, no
one can remember exactly what everybody was so hot and bothered about!
(Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist,
Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a
daughter and son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they
are the authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in
Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You
can see their website at www.nurturemom.com or email them with
questions or comments at email@example.com; unfortunately, a
personal reply may not always be possible.)