By Dr. Deanna Brann

With the holidays in full swing, we all are trying our darndest to find those perfect gifts, prepare our homes, and make the season memorable—for us as well as for those we love. But all too often, despite our best efforts, the holidays end up being incredibly stressful. Much of this holiday tension comes from those frustrating “family issues” that crop up when we get together with our relatives, including disruptions in the delicate balance between grandparents, their adult children, and their grandchildren.

How many of you have imagined spending your holidays with your grandchildren, including what you would do with them, when you would do those activities, and how you’d feel “as a family,” only to find that their parents—your adult child and his or her spouse—have a totally different plan? A plan that does not include your thoughts, dreams, or fantasies of what that precious holiday time together would be like? Or maybe you don’t even allow yourself to indulge in those daydreams; instead, you find yourself sitting on the sidelines while thinking to yourself, It’s their holiday. We had ours when our kids were children, and now it’s their turn, all the while feeling sad and left out. Either way it doesn’t have to take a miracle for all three generations to have a happy holiday together.

Grandparents play a special role in their grandchildren’s lives. We get the opportunity to do things differently and to act in a way the parents can’t because, well, they’re “the parents.” As grandparents, we now have the freedom from everyday parenting that gives us a chance to have more fun, create memories, and be that special someone in our grandchildren’s lives. We are in a wonderful place to give in a way we couldn’t do when our children were small. However, because we are the grandparents and not the parents, we need to respect the guidelines and traditions that our adult children and their spouses have set. We need to think of our relationship with our grandchildren in terms of a slow, steady build, not a race to get to our end goal. We want to be a wonderful addition to their traditions, not an affliction!

Fortunately, all we need is a little guidance. So with that in mind, here are some tips to help you be that one-of-kind special grandparent this year (and every year afterward):

Talk with the parents about the gift-giving rules for the grandchildren. Know what they want and don’t want for their children in the way of type of gifts, how much money you spend on the kids, the number of gifts, and so on. If any of these things are not clear, ask.

Explore the holiday plans in advance so that you will know as much as possible about what is happening when and where. Don’t assume anything. The plans from last year may not be repeated this year. Ask for clarity so you know in advance how the holidays will unfold and where you fit into them. Remember, it’s your child’s and his or her spouse’s holiday too.

Don’t take things personally. Remember, holidays are stressful for your adult children, too. They’re caught in the middle, trying to please everyone, while at the same time trying to create their own holiday traditions with your grandchildren.

Think of some things you can do with your grandchildren that don’t include monetary gifts. Create wonderful memories by doing, not necessarily by buying. By doing things with your grandchildren you do not limit yourself to the actual holiday, but instead, open the door to the activities occurring before and after the holiday, which gives you more time with your grandchildren. The grandkids will remember what you did together long after the holidays are over, but they won’t always remember what you bought them.

Create a family tradition of your own with your grandchildren. Think of activities that your grandkids will not only remember, but also look forward to year after year. It could be making cookies or holiday cards together, decorating the tree, singing carols around the piano, going to see the neighborhood holiday light displays, seeing a special holiday performance, or even volunteering to help fill gift baskets for the needy.

And remember, you don’t have to do every tradition every year. The point is to have fun and create memories, not to check things off of a master activity list. As your grandchildren get older, ask them if there is something in particular they’d like to add to the holiday festivities you’ve already planned with them. They may ask to do one of the things you’ve done in the past, and that’s great because then you know that activity is becoming one of your traditions with them. Or they may have a whole new idea for what they want to do with you, and that’s great, too, because it gives them a chance to feel included in creating these special holiday memories. Either way, it’s a win-win-win for all three generations.

Deanna Brann, Ph.D. has over 30 years of experience in the mental health field as a clinical psychotherapist specializing in communication skills, family and interpersonal relationships, and conflict resolution. After running her own private practice for more than 20 years, she spent time later in her career providing business consultation to other private practice professionals in the health care and legal fields. As both a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, her own personal experiences led her to research the subject. Her first book, Reluctantly Related, began the discussion of examining and bettering the MIL/DIL relationship and is followed by her newest book, Reluctantly Related Revisited. Brann holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology, a Master of Science degree in Clinical Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Psychobiological Anthropology.

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