Issues with Relatives

Issues with Relatives

I’ve got hassles with my extended family. My husband’s parents were pretty strict, so that’s his inclination, but I’m trying to raise our children in more of an attachment parenting kind of way. So I get a lot of unwanted advice and comments about me ‘spoiling’ our kids, etc.

Oh dear!

When children come along, relatives can be an incredible blessing or something of a curse – and sometimes both at the same time. Happily, there are lots of ways to keep things on a good footing with the relatives.

Have confidence – Remember that you and your partner have the final say about how you’ll raise your children. The bottom-line is that you can limit access to your child if you have to  – which is a big threat to most relatives. Similarly, if need be, you can get off the phone quickly, change the subject if a conversation gets awkward, keep visits short, or intervene in an interaction between your child and a relative that’s starting to go off the rails.

Be open-minded  – Who knows: maybe they know something after all. You can listen without committing yourself, without giving away your right to do something different. You could try something new with a child and see if it works; if you think of it as simply an experiment, it won’t seem so serious or tense. Hey, if it works, you’d want to know that, and if it doesn’t, then you can say you tried it.

Become knowledgeable about parenting  – Knowing the facts behind optimal parenting practices will put you on solid ground if there’s a disagreement with your partner or his or her family. Rather than getting into a wrangle in which it’s your opinion against theirs, you can calmly mention that researchers have established XYZ facts – which are the basis for your parenting style – and then move on to another topic.

Stick up for your child – and yourself – Definitely do not let relatives treat your children in any way that crosses a significant line. For example, if you were spanked as a child but you don’t want that happening with your toddler, make that known to any relatives who are babysitting.

With your mate, it could help to establish some ground rules for how you’ll deal with the relatives. Like agreeing to never bad-mouth each other. Or promising not to make firm commitments – from new parenting practices to holiday visits – without consulting each other first.

How to make family visits work

There’s an old saying that fences make for good neighbors. Boundaries help people stay connected.

So, if need be, it’s alright to put a time limit on visits. You can always find a face-saving explanation. For example, if the in-laws are coming over for the afternoon, you can let them know that you’re going to have to leave the house at 6 pm for some kind of meeting. Or let’s say you are traveling to visit your partner’s family, but you’re concerned about it all getting a little overwhelming: set up your own transportation so you can get out of the house, arrange in advance for activities that will give you some breathing room (like a trip with the kids to a local attraction), and make sure you have a private room you can slip away to. Sometimes, staying in a motel nearby makes for the happiest visits.

How to get through an awkward situation

If things start getting tense:

  • Try to stay calm and civil. Help yourself by imagining that a camera is recording you and will be played back later for all to see. Remember that how you conduct yourself can muddy the waters and undermine the high moral ground where you want to take your stand.
  • Establish that differences are OK, that there are lots of ways to raise healthy happy productive children. You might say something like: “Sure, you may be right, I know lots of people have raised their children that way. It’s that Bob and I have decided to do it a little differently.”
  • Narrow the issue. For example, rather than getting into a big debate about discipline, wayward youth today, and on and on, just say: “Oh, Jane and I certainly believe in discipline, in raising respectful well-behaved kids. It’s simply that we’re confident we can accomplish that without spanking them.”
  • Affirm your desire and intention to support your children in having a good, long relationship with their relatives.

Keep a sense of perspective –  Keep in mind the big stakes on the table: a cordial relationship with the relatives that lasts for years and years – so try not to get upset, rigid, or argumentative about small issues. Let’s say that it really matters to Grandma to get a hug, even though she smells funny to your two-year old daughter. Maybe it’s alright to do everything within your power – including promising her a chocolate cake! – if she’ll put up with that hug.

Think of encounters with the relatives as visits to another culture or country: local customs prevail, and it’s usually not a big deal to observe them for a little while. Take the long view: most upsets with relatives work themselves out over time; often, a few years later, no one can remember exactly what everybody was so hot and bothered about!

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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