Families

Worried About Visiting Your Family This Holiday Season?

Dennis Rainey
Tips for Visiting Your Dysfunctional Family at Christmas


The thought expressed by the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” can cause varying reactions from a knot in the stomach to a longing in the heart.

The issue of how to handle family expectations for holiday gatherings is something every adult has to figure out. Where and how you celebrate may cause loud “conversations” and hurt feelings.

My wife, Barbara, and I had to deal with this issue early on in our marriage. Both our families have wonderful holiday traditions. So, we adopted a common solution. One year, we celebrated Christmas with Barbara’s family and then went to my folks later. The next year, the schedule reversed.

We’ve all experienced the discomfort of being used to familiar traditions and then having to adapt to new ones. Yet, the challenge of the holidays can be mild until your first child comes along. Now, your parents are grandparents, and the stakes jump dramatically. That’s when we realized we needed to establish our own traditions.

Every family is unique. What we do will not apply to every situation. But the principles we’ve learned can help you negotiate the challenge of the holidays.

Honoring Your Parents

How can you honor your parents’ wishes but establish your own family traditions?

Jesus reminded us of the command found in Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (New American Standard Bible).

Scripture also commands us to “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12, NASB).

These two commands are not in competition with one another.

I can’t offer an ironclad set of rules about what honors or dishonors parents on holiday visits. But, if you’re a Christian, it is important to listen for God’s guidance in these situations as you pray and read the Bible. God knows the specifics of your circumstances and relationships and will help guide you through difficult situations.

When dealing with difficult parent or in-law dynamics, consider the following: What could honor your parents more than building an enduring, love-filled, God-honoring life or marriage? After all, doing so will create a safe nest for future grandchildren.

Establishing holiday traditions in your family cements you, your marriage and your family’s identity. What parent could oppose that?

“You Don’t Know My Parents or In-laws!”

Like everyone else, parents are sinful; they may want you at home for selfish reasons. Some parents are manipulative.

Honoring your parents doesn’t mean giving in to immature attitudes. You need to do what is right in the long term for you, your marriage and your family.

And there is a way to do that and still honor your parents.

Letting a child go is one of the most difficult challenges of parenting. Don’t be surprised that something as innocent as a holiday visit may reopen the “separation wound.”

If a mom or dad struggles with letting go, irritation over holiday plans may reveal this. This is an opportunity to sever the ties appropriately.

This is also a great time to better establish your marriage and your family’s holiday traditions. Those traditions include what you do in your own home with your spouse, children or friends before and on Christmas Day.

Part of your traditions may involve activities with your parents. Yet, the focus needs to shift to your home.

Going Home Guidelines

As part of honoring your parents, you will likely visit their home. Here are some ideas on how to do this without violating the traditions you are creating.

1. Be Flexible

Try celebrating your family’s Christmas a day or more early, then head to your parents’.

2. Be Proactive

Address possible hurt feelings early. For example, call your parents and say, “We won’t be coming home for Christmas this year. We want to establish our own family traditions. But we do want to come home the weekend of Mom’s birthday and have a celebration!”

Be sure your parents know you aren’t abandoning them. This will help them accept potentially disappointing decisions.

3. Be Brief

We’ve found this rule to be helpful for any home visit (and we have a great relationship with all our parents). Never plan on staying more than three days for a family visit. A short visit that ends on a positive note is better than a long stay that rubs someone the wrong way.

4. Be Firm

Don’t let nostalgia, the holiday spirit or guilt-inducing comments sway you from doing what’s right for your family. 

5. Be Kind

After your family gathering, don’t overanalyze or criticize your parents for their mistakes. Parents need children to be compassionate with them too.

What If My Family is Dysfunctional?

You may be asking, “What if my family is an ugly mess? What do I do if my parents mistreat my spouse? Or me? What if they overindulge or hurt our children?”

As a couple establishes guidelines and limits, it is important to protect you, your spouse, your relationship and your family.

For example, if you plan to go back home to an abusive or alcoholic parent, you must decide your limits in advance. Gently but firmly communicate those limits to your parents. Let them know what will happen if they behave in a certain way then follow through.

Watch out for resentment. While visiting under difficult circumstances, you, your spouse or your family may be  treated in an unkind way. Practice forgiving and giving grace along with following through with your limits.

Looking for help with establishing traditions of your own?

Check out “6 Tips for Starting Holiday Traditions for Your Family.”


© 2000 Dennis and Barbara Rainey. All Rights Reserved. Adapted with permission from “Starting Your Marriage Right” (Nashville, Thomas Nelson). For more helpful information on strengthening your marriage and family, please visit www.familylife.com.

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