You’re into preparation mode-shopping, cooking, invitations, fundraisers, junk mail, Christmas cards, special parties. And this is above and beyond the regular stuff on your plate–sports teams, concerts, work deadlines, homework help. And then there’s the unexpected–a child’s broken leg, another ear infection, a friend in crisis. But for many there’s another source of underlying stress … your in-laws or parents are coming for the holidays, or you are going to be with them!

You may be anticipating this visit with great joy or with a bit of dread. It all depends on your relationships with them. However, either way simply having extra adults or extra children around will bring extra confusion and increase the level of stress. Four tips will help to make this a good holiday for all.

1. Have realistic expectations.

It’s easy to be swayed by the picture of a perfect family deeply enjoying one another by the fireside at Christmas. Our longing for this image can set us up for disappointment. There is no perfect family. We are all sinful people. You and I are going to disappoint someone in our family in this season. And someone is going to disappoint us.

It may be wise to discuss expectations before the visit. If you are the elder visiting, don’t go with your own plan as to how you will “help.” What looks like help to you may not be what your kids call help. Instead say, “I’d love to help you in any way I can but you need to tell me exactly what that will look like for you.” And this will be different for each one of your kids’ families. If you are the children visiting with your kids, ask your elders for one or two specific things you can do to help them. After the visit, be sure your kids write a thank you note to their grandparents. They often feel taken for granted.  We all want to be appreciated. Thoughtfulness is a character trait we want to develop in our children and thank you notes provide one way to do this.

2. Guard against a critical spirit.

Your mother-in-law doesn’t load the dishwasher the way you want her to, or she messes up your wash, or she doesn’t pay enough attention to a specific child. It’s easy to be critical of her and criticism becomes resentment. Realize that her motive was to help. She may have gone about it in the wrong way but at least she tried.

On the other side, you may be the older parent, and you are really disappointed by the fact that your children are letting your grandkids trash your house. They are not disciplining them as you think they should. And you feel unappreciated. Realize that your children are exhausted. The season of parenting little kids is one of the most stressful periods of life and young parents are usually worn out. Cut them some slack, especially in this season.

Holidays and family reunions are not the best time to deal with “issues.” Issues are better dealt with during the year. Family reunions are times to celebrate what is good. The rest of the year is the time to nurture the relationships. During this season choose to believe the best in one another.

3. Plan specific fun.

One of my greatest treasures is an old tape on which we recorded an interview we did with my elderly grandmother. We asked her what it was like to grow up in the deep South. (She was born in 1889!) We asked her what was invented while she was a child, what life was like for her parents and grandparents, what toys she played with, who was President, and what was happening in the world. It was fascinating and today it is a part of our own grandchildren’s history. Plan to video an interview with your elders. Have your kids come up with some of the questions. This is their heritage and one day they will appreciate it.  One family I know makes gingerbread houses. It’s a multigenerational tradition and provides fun bonding for all. Plan one or two specific things to do together.

4. Keep the main thing the main thing.

In today’s world it’s easy to let our family or the family we wish we were become an idol. If there are difficult relationships within our families, we feel like failures. We look at another family and they seem to have it all together, to be perfect. And ours isn’t. And this pain becomes more pronounced during the holidays.

This is normal, but we have to remember that our family is not the main issue.

Christmas is about the birth of Jesus who was born to die … to die on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven. He knows we are broken. He knows not one single family is perfect.

That’s why He came. He came to bring healing for all. This season we need to keep our focus on Him. We need to ask Him to give us a grateful heart for what He has done for us and to ask Him for the insight to see things to be grateful for in each family member.

{Editor’s Note: This article was first published on MomLife Today during Christmas 2013, but the advice is so stellar, we thought it important to bring to your attention! The wisdom of those who have gone before us is invaluable! Make it a point to get some parenting thoughts from those older than you this Christmas season…it will honor them that you are asking!}

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  1. Wow, timely post! Our bible study group discussed this exact issue last week- can't wait to share this with them. Thanks, Susan.

    1. Thanks so much Julia! I'm so happy about your bible study! Blessings friend!

  2. Thanks so much for this post. I really needed this as these very stresses were already mounting.

  3. Great advice, Susan. Now that we live near most of our family, the holidays are less stressful. One thing I’ve learned with having a child with autism is to know when to make an exit. Each year we are able to stay longer, but when she was little, we could only stay in a busy gathering for a short time before Rachel became overwhelmed and melted down.