The holidays may remain the same on the calendar, but the gatherings change over time. As a kid, you used to look forward to Grandma’s apple pie. Now you’re the one who brings it!

One change you might not have expected: Being a parent at these gatherings can be stressful. Maybe you’ve got a cousin who judges your discipline style, or a start time that’s in the middle of your toddler’s nap. Plus, what will your preschooler eat? This isn’t how you imagined these occasions would go as a parent!

The good news: Holidays don't have to equal drama! Read on to understand what's bothering you about family gatherings then versus now and how to handle it.

When you feel judged

The situation: Your sister, who doesn’t have kids, tells your kid how to behave. Or your brother blames your kid when it was his kid who was hitting.

The pain point: A parent trying to discipline another parent's child is pretty much a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

Take action:
Say to your sibling:
“You know what, sis, I got this one. I’ll talk to him about it.” This shows your kid you’ll stand up for him and that you still expect good behavior from him.

Say to the kids: When little cousins hit each other, redirect them in a non-judgy way that doesn’t blame a specific child. “Hey, guys, it looks like this game isn’t working. It sounds like we have a lot of disagreements. What else can we try?”

Say to yourself: “I may disagree with my brother/aunt/cousin on discipline, but I can still be glad to spend time with them on Thanksgiving.” Remember, you can't control your relatives but you can control how you respond to them.

When your kid is bored

The situation: Your kid has no one their age to play with and is begging for screen time. The older cousins are already on their phones.

The pain point: Parents often assume that events like Thanksgiving won't interest their child, but giving them screen time means they won't have the chance to try to connect with others at the gathering.

Take action:
Bring toys,
like Legos or Magnatiles. A big set of bricks is the common denominator toy that can bring teenage cousins and little ones together. Even kids who don’t normally play with Legos on their own might do so in a group.

Pick out a present. Have your kid give a toy to a younger cousin. Your “big” kid can show the toddler how to play with the toy.

Encourage small talk. Challenge your kid to say hello to 5 or more people. Older relatives will be delighted when your little guy comes up to them and asks “How are you today?” or “May I take your plate?” and your kid will be proud of themselves.

Play a “chatty" scavenger hunt. Kids can do this on their own or you can partner them up. Send them off to get answers from guests. Ideas: Whose birthday is the same month as yours? Find two people who like pumpkin pie more than apple pie. Who traveled the most miles to attend today’s gathering?

When food is stressful

The situation: You know your kid won’t want any of the food on offer at Grandma's house.

The paint point: There’s a reason there are so many funny memes about kids eating nothing but bread rolls on special occasions. It’s true! Maybe you were even the same way as a kid!

Take action: 

  • Feed your kid beforehand. If they have a solid breakfast or lunch, you won’t have to worry about them eating enough at the meal.
  • Take the pressure off. Getting your kid to be a more adventurous eater is a great goal, but not in the middle of a family gathering. If your kid says no thank you to a food, shrug it off with no negative emotions or pressure. And check out our picky eating topic for inspiring ideas to try another time.
  • Be surprised. Unless your kid has allergies or medical challenges, don’t pack a separate meal for them. If you’ve fed them beforehand and there’s one item there they’ll eat (um, bread), they'll make it through the day. And who knows? Your kid may surprise you and try the gravy!

When bedtime is tricky

The situation: The meal is too close to your kid’s bedtime or in the middle of their nap.

The paint point: The good news about this problem is that it only lasts during the early years of your kid’s life, but during that time it can be the biggest, hardest problem ever!

Take action: 

  • Trust your gut. You know your kid best. If missing one nap, makes them incredibly difficult to manage the rest of the day, then tell the host you can’t make 1 p.m., but can head over for dessert later. Or if the meal is at 6 p.m. and your kid has a bedtime window of 7:30 p.m. or never, then feel free to go for an hour and say hello and grab some to-go plates to take home.
  • Shrug off comments. It’s true that family members with grown or older kids may have forgotten what the early years are like with no-sleep kids. (Believe it or not, you may be the same way someday!) So don’t take it personally if/when they say, “Can’t your kid skip one nap?!” or “Geez, strict parents!” Remind yourself that these comments may be a relative’s way of dealing with the emotions of change and growing older.
  • Get on the same page. Whether you want to blow off bedtime or not, talk about it beforehand with your partner. Otherwise, your partner might disagree with you in the moment and say, “What’s the big deal if they miss bedtime this once?” That’s no fun to sort out in front of everyone. When you talk in advance, you’ll both have a chance to share how you’d like the party to go and come to an agreement that you’ll both support.

Let's recap!

  1. Being a parent at family gatherings can be surprisingly stressful! You may feel judged or out of sync with the way others parent their kids.
  2. It rarely goes well when another adult tries to discipline another parent's child.
  3. If your kid doesn't have anyone their age to play with, bring toys. Send your kid on a "chatty scavenger hunt" to encourage interaction with older relatives.
  4. Go easy on food stress. Feed your kid a big meal beforehand if you worry they won't eat much. Offer all foods on the table without pressure. Your kid may surprise you!
  5. If your kid needs their sleep, don't feel guilty about leaving early or coming late to the meal.

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