Enriching Your Holidays While Including Your Birth-Family


By Rev. Renee

     I believe you can greatly improve your family holiday while still including your birth family, provided they truly have your best interests at heart and are open to making some changes.

     If you have a problem relative, the first step is to gently but firmly rebuke.  You need to request that your relative not treat you, or your husband or children, in a particular way.  You need to be very specific about the behavior you want stopped.  Try to cite specific examples of this behavior and explain how hurtful it is. 

     At this point, a relative who truly means no harm will apologize and assure you it will not happen again, and it won’t.  But an unrepentant person needs to be told that if their hurtful behavior continues, you will need to take steps to minimize the damage. 

     One time when I tried to reason with my birth-father, he grudgingly told me he would modify his behavior in my home, but I ‘had no right to tell him how to act’ anywhere else, even if it was in my presence or in my children’s presence.  I found this response fascinating and enlightening for several reasons.

     First, even though he was a grown man, his answer was very juvenile and immature. (You can’t tell me what to do!)  Second, he acknowledged being perfectly well aware that his behavior was unacceptable; otherwise, why agree to stop it in my home?  The third interesting insight was that he could control his behavior if he wanted to- he just wasn’t going to because I had asked!

     He had chosen an adversarial spirit, rather than a spirit of cooperation, and he wasn’t going to let me ‘win’ without him getting some concessions from me.  The devil always tries to negotiate or bargain with you- to make a deal so he will still come out a winner!  He wants you to agree that some form of his evil is acceptable.  Do not compromise what you know is right.  Never make a deal with the devil!

     The fact is, you do have the right to set limits on the behavior you will tolerate in your presence !  It is perfectly reasonable to expect adults to control themselves , if only out of consideration for all present.  If they insist on acting like children, they need and deserve to be treated like children.  That means setting limits and enforcing consequences.

    You can tell them, ‘If you continue to do______, then I will do_______.’  I believe that rebuke is the most honest way of dealing with these problems, and it is also what Jesus tells us to do in Luke 17:3.  By rebuking, we are giving them a chance to change.

    Sometimes, your birth-family will not care about their effect on you and will not change, or will escalate their behavior now that they know it bothers you, as my birth-family did.  If so, you will need to take steps to protect yourself.  Sometimes you may not feel able to directly confront because of a relative’s substance abuse or potential for violence, but you can still set limits and stick to the consequences you have decided upon, although in these cases you may not choose to give your relative advance warning.

     Here are some suggestions for a more pleasant holiday:

1.   Limit your time together.  I cut back birthday celebrations to just coffee and cake instead of five-hour dinners, to give my birth-father less time to start a fight.  You might have to cut out or avoid certain celebrations completely.  Don’t worry about what is ‘expected of you.’  Think about what you have the right to expect of them.

     If you have travelled to their home for the holidays, stay in a hotel. This will give you a place to retreat to and help you avoid being together so long you are bound to get on each other’s nerves.  It also gives you the psychological advantage of being seen as an independent adult, rather than the child who is back sleeping in her old room under her parents’ roof.

     Be sure to control some private time for yourself, your husband, and your children, or just for yourself.  Avoid spending the whole day with your relatives.  Plan on arriving just before dinner, or leaving shortly after. Go for an after-dinner walk, to a church service, or do some sightseeing.  Give the out-of-control person much less opportunity to act out.

2.   Get up and leave, if your relative decides to disregard your boundary.  If you are in the middle of dinner and have no way of cooking for your kids at home, then leave as soon as dinner is over, but this consequence is most effective when done immediately following the offense. 

      You can be honest about why you are leaving.  If you feel that would upset other innocent people, then simply say you suddenly don’t feel very well.  If you have just been criticized, insulted, offended, etc., that will pretty much be the truth.

      Be aware of the tactics the Silent Partner , or enabler, will use to manipulate you into staying longer than you feel comfortable with, such as an insistence on opening gifts after dinner, or Santa Claus having to arrive no earlier than midnight.  The Silent Partner is an expert at dragging things out against the wishes of her captive audience.  She is counting on you not leaving before she has officially declared the festivities over and may even use your children to guilt you into staying longer.  I prepared my children beforehand by informing them that we would be leaving, no matter what , as soon as anything offensive was said or done.  This way, they would not be surprised or overly upset if it actually happened. 

3.    Expect others to pitch in and help, if you are the hostess, and expect them to take their turn at hosting other holidays.  Don’t do it all yourself.  This is what I like to call the ‘Oldest Daughter Syndrome‘, (see My Holiday Deliverance and When Is It Ever Going To Be My Turn  where everything is expected of the oldest daughter (not son!), while nothing is expected of anyone else.  Studies on birth order have shown that the oldest daughter typically shoulders the majority of family responsibilities, the middle child tries to please everyone and be a peace-maker, and the youngest thinks everyone should do for her and she never has to do anything for anyone else.  In most families, these patterns continue throughout adulthood. 

     Of course, there are many exceptions, and while it is not always the oldest daughter, there usually is one good-natured ‘patsy’ in every family who winds up with the bulk of the work and expenses.  All the adults in a family are equals, no one is any less or any more than anyone else.  Not just the fun and relaxation, but the family responsibilities, as well, need to be shared equally among all the adults.

     Insensitive, inconsiderate, thoughtless, self-centered, or selfish relatives will remain so unless you speak up.  Be prepared for a lame excuse, such as ‘I thought you enjoyed doing everything!’  You need to very clearly let your siblings and your parents know that you expect them to do their share, to take turns hosting the holidays at their houses, and to bring a dish and help with the cleanup when the celebration is at your house.

     You need to give them specifics on how they can help you.  You can request that someone who lives out-of-town arrive a couple of days early, to help you cook, clean, and decorate.  You can say, ‘Hey I have an idea!  Let’s start sharing the holidays.  How about me having Thanksgiving this year , and you having Christmas Eve?’, or, around September, you can mention, ‘You know, I had Christmas at my house last year.  It’s your turn this year.  Let me know what kind of dessert you’d like me to bring.’  Notice I’m specific in suggesting a particular type of dish you might contribute.  If you leave it open-ended, as in ‘Let me know what you want me to bring’, or ‘Tell me what I can do to help’, you’re likely to wind up cooking most of the dinner and hauling it to your relative’s house- and it would have been easier to just have the dinner at your house in the first place!

     It takes a little nerve to use this approach, but think of the nerve it takes to exploit and take advantage of one person year-after-year. If you say it with a smile and use a little humor, you can get your point across.  Be careful not to use so much humor that your relative doesn’t take you seriously.

     It is possible that someone will have enough nerve to still refuse to take their turn or do their share.  In that case, there is nothing wrong with saying ‘Oh, well, then we’ll be making our own plans for the holidays this year- maybe we can get together next year’, making it clear in a nice but firm way that you won’t be inviting them to join your celebration if there is never going to be a return invitation.  Sitting home by themselves or having to make other plans for one year is a perfectly acceptable Natural Consequence of their selfishness-maybe they’ll learn to appreciate you more!

     Another alternative is that those who never reciprocate should share, in a significant way, in the expenses and work when you host a holiday. For instance, they can shop for and pay for all the groceries, do all the decorating, wrap all the gifts you bought so you don’t have to, or clean your house before and after. Even a financially-challenged relative can always help with the chores. Unless someone is very old or disabled, there is no reason why they can’t contribute, so everyone can have a more pleasant, relaxing day.

4.    Make other plans for the holidays and see your relatives the week before or the week after.  If you have one or two in your family who always manage to pick fights,  be bad-tempered, or get out-of-control, everyone’s stress level might be a little less if it is not an actual holiday.  Expect some objections from the abuser and enabler, and be prepared to stand firm.

5.     Take your phone off the hook if you are not spending the holidays with your relatives, but they manage to upset you anyway, long-distance. Letting the machine answer will still disrupt your celebration and turn your thoughts to them, so it is better not to even hear the phone ring.  Call them before they call you, preferably the day before, and keep the conversation short but sweet.  Then enjoy yourself and your family on the actual holiday, with no aggravating interruptions.

      The perfect time for a discussion with your abusive relative is a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving.  You will be able to judge by her reaction whether or not it’s a good idea to spend Thanksgiving with her.  If she seems agreeable, her behavior on Thanksgiving will serve as a test, as chance to prove herself.  You can see if she really has made any changes before committing to spending Christmas with her,or deciding whether you need to make other plans.

     Remember, all you have done is given your relative a choice of modifying her behavior while she is with you, or not.  If it becomes necessary for you to enforce consequences in order to protect yourself and your family, it will have been your abusive relative’s choice.  We need to take control of our holidays and our lives,  and not turn all control over to others who will make us feel resentful, hurt, and stressed. These are always difficult decisions, but we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to remain in the true spirit of the holidays, and not be distracted by unnecessary and repetitive problems.  Peace and joy, and gratitude to our Father for his love and all his blessings should be the focus of our thoughts during this holy season of our Lord’s birth.