How To Handle Those Family Power Struggles This Holiday Season

In-laws that overstep. Relatives that give the kids whatever they want. Here’s how to approach such common issues while keeping your cool.

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Male couple arguing in an apartment

When Mike was growing up, his father carved the turkey every Thanksgiving. It was a family tradition that had been passed down from father-to-father for several generations. Or at least that’s how he felt. He even had a special carving knife that was brought out only for the occasion. So, when the time came for Mike to host his first Thanksgiving at his home, he was eager to take on his role as the new family bird-carver. Until, that is, he came into the kitchen and saw his father-in-law sharpening the knives. When he attempted to lodge a protest with his wife, Mike was met with a look of bewilderment. “Dad always carves the turkey,” she told him. “It’s tradition.”

This scene, and ones just like it, are likely going to play out in living rooms and dining rooms, around trees and in front yards around the country over the next several weeks. As everyone knows, the holidays bring families together. But, when that happens, the families tend to bring their baggage with them. This can be especially stressful for guys looking to claim their house as their own, only to find themselves constantly usurped by an over-eager father- or brother-in-law.

“When a couple gets married, there’s sort of a realignment of the power hierarchy in a family and I think almost every family deals with this in one way or another,” says Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Michigan and Executive Director of Michigan Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. “And at the holidays, with everyone together, it’s just accentuated.”

Part of the problem, Krawiec says, is that, when it comes to either giving advice or putting their hands in family affairs, men, especially older men, can’t help themselves.

“Men, organically in their bodies, are sort of compelled to pass on information that they have,” she explains. “If you have a father-in-law who is in his 60s, it would be very normal for him to offer advice. That would be the developmental thing that’s happening at that time.”

As a result, Kraweic notes that it might behoove put-upon son-in-laws (and daughter-in-laws) to be mindful of the father-in-law’s changing role in the world.

“This is what’s happening for him now in a lot of areas in his life,” she says, “So it’s important to sort of balance humoring him while also placing boundaries where they need to be.”

Of course, carving the turkey and trimming the tree are only some of the potential pitfalls that await family holiday get-togethers. Adding children to the mix at holidays can add further complications, and may leave you thinking about establishing firmer boundaries.

“When families get together for the holidays, children, adorable manipulators that they are, will exploit an opening,” says David Ezell, Clinical Director of Darien Wellness, a counseling and wellness group in Darien, Connecticut. “It’s how we are all programmed — survival 101. Children are 100 percent about now, with no idea about consequences or long-term effects. So when they are in a room with dad, grandpa, and their favorite uncle, they know the former is probably going to make them adhere to a more stringent set of rules.”

When children find themselves in a situation like that, Ezell says that the first thing they will try and do is try to exploit it. The best way to do that, he explains, is to gravitate towards the family member most likely to give them what they want. And, of course, that relative is likely to give in because they see the child so rarely and want to get in their good graces.

“This is a no-win situation, especially for authoritative dads,” Ezell says. “So the best way to ‘win’ is to not play. Let junior eat his dessert first or stay up past eight. It’s a few days a year and yes, you will be the one dealing with a cranky child tomorrow. But compared to seasonal power struggles with relatives you rarely see, this appears to be a far easier option.”

Another coping strategy, says Krawiec, is to have a conversation with yourself ahead a time, examining your in-laws’ behavior and try to determine what kind of meaning you’re assigning to it.

“If you’re going to assign a negative meaning when a person is telling you what to do and think, They must think I’m doing a bad job, you’re obviously going to react in a more negative way,” she says. “So if you can at least offset it with some alternate explanations. ‘This is their development, this is hard for them, they’re just trying to be helpful,’ that will at least help soften your response.”

Also, Krawiec says, it’s key to get on the same page with your spouse, telling them ahead of time to things that a certain family member does that are triggers, and to have the spouse be open to calling out their parent if they get out of line.

“Your spouse may say something like, ‘Oh that’s just my dad,’ but it really is important that the person whose parent it is the person who communicates any new boundaries,” she says. “Because there’s already love there and attachment and history and a bunch of good feelings. So you can set a boundary, but it comes with a cushion of love.”

“Be a peacemaker. You are modeling behavior for how a man acts to your child. If you fight and hold grudges, your kid is going to internalize that model. Don’t win a battle to lose a war.”

While you’re planning coping strategies, Karwiec says, also make sure that you keep the tone positive. Rather than just correcting mom and dad, give them things to do that will make them feel useful.

“If you know what your father-in-law is like and you know he likes to come and be the big boss, plan ahead with a job,” Krawiec says. “Say something like, ‘Dad the way you could really be helpful with us here today is to get the TV set up for the Lions game.’ Give him a task and make that be his job so that you can take that off your plate.”

And never underestimate the power of a compliment. “When they’re doing the right thing,” she says, “when they’re being kind or encouraging or keeping to themselves, you can say things like, ‘Hey that was really cool that you didn’t get involved when I was disciplining my son. Thank you for just cheerleading me from the background.’”

Acknowledging the moment and offering kind words is going to help you a lot more than when you confront them when they’re doing the wrong thing. And they will slowly start to catch on how to best be helpful in your household.

But perhaps the most important lesson to learn going into the holidays? Keep your cool. Stuff is going to go wrong. People are going to get under your skin. If you can hold it together, everything will go a lot more smoothly. If not, you could be facing consequences that could extend well into the New Year.

Or, as Ezell says: “Be a peacemaker. You are modeling behavior for how a man acts to your child. If you fight and hold grudges, your kid is going to internalize that model. Don’t win a battle to lose a war.”

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