A psychologist's plan for dealing with family members critical of your parenting
If you’ve ever sat down for a family feast only to learn that your mom thinks you should feed your son more veggies; if you got judgmental looks from an in-law when you handed your daughter an iPad after dinner; or if you felt a grandparent was unfairly comparing your kids’ milestones to your cousins’ offspring you are not alone.
Over the holidays plenty of parents will encounter criticisms that loved ones mean as helpful advice, but that actually feel a lot like mom-shaming. A recent poll done by Similac’s parent company Abbott found that 71% of parents with young children said unwanted comments about their parenting style came from close family members. The things they felt most judged about sound pretty familiar: screen time, discipline, milestones, feeding, education, sleep training, working and staying at home.
To help build better boundaries in advance of the holiday season we spoke with child and family psychologist Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, author of the book Mommy Burnout. She believes it’s possible to not just survive holiday get-togethers, but to enjoy our gatherings more if we employ a few of these tactics:
1. Prepare your team.
If you’re married, you two have to be a united front before your family gatherings. “It is really good to do some talking ahead of time and anticipate the [problematic] areas—’Your mother always says something about what our kids are eating,’ or whatever it might be,” Ziegler suggested. “Just say, let’s not get sucked in… Let’s pick and choose our battles. That can be done with humor when you’re driving over [to a family visit]. It’s almost like the two of you are a team.”
As a team, you can then use the following other tips.
2. Listen before reacting
This a challenge for some of us whose natural instinct is to defend ourselves at all costs. But what if we didn’t react to the commentary right away?
“Go into [your family gathering] being like, ‘I’m just going to listen more than I’m going to speak,’ ” Ziegler told Motherly. She doesn’t literally mean that you shouldn’t talk during dinner, but rather that you make this your go-to plan for any time someone says something that feels like shaming or judgment to you. Internally, you’re not agreeing with them, but externally you’re saying, “Thank you, next.”
“It is hard, but I’ve used this strategy myself, and it is really effective,” she added.
You don’t have to just take the critique, but this strategy allows you to address the wounding comments at a less stressful time than when you’re carving the turkey.
3. Find common ground
Rather than fight your loved one on a point, you can make like a diplomat and pivot to something you do agree on. Ziegler used the example of an adult commenting that you aren’t making your child eat green beans. “I would divert from, ‘Yeah, my kid’s not going to eat green beans,’ to, ‘I see, you’re eating turkey. Johnny loves turkey too.'”
4. Focus on the grownups
Not everyone’s going to be able to carry off #3 , especially since we’re sensitive where our kids are concerned. Instead, you could try to turn this into a conversation about yourself and the adults in the room. This could begin with a question about when the other adults in your family got potty trained, for example, and then transition into a slightly more current topic.
We never thought we’d say this, but maybe this is when you do want to talk politics at the table!
5. Follow the Golden Rule
“Don’t talk poorly about other people, because when you do that, especially around the holiday table, it invites criticism,” Ziegler says. Negative comments about anything, even a topic unrelated to children, can set a tone of negativity that will come right back at you. Speak positively to others, and you have a better chance of everyone speaking positively to you.
We all believe in standing up for ourselves and parenting in the best way that works for us. But Ziegler’s tips may help us make it through the holidays in a peaceful, even joyful way—without compromising our values.
“Go in with the mantra, ‘I’m going to choose joy over judgment,'” Ziegler says. When things get tough repeat it to yourself under your breath or on a break in the bathroom. When you say something like that enough times, it might just come true.