Surviving Holiday Guilt Trips from Parents and In-Laws
Here are 5 ways to let the people you love know where you stand with your holiday plans--apologies included.

Few things in life are more uncomfortable than disappointing our parents. Most of us can remember a time when we let our parents down—like when we said our first swear word or told our first lie. I can still remember the crestfallen look on my mom's face when I came home after curfew 20 years ago.

I suppose the feeling of guilt can serve a useful purpose if it motivates us to make positive changes in our lives, but too often people use guilt to manipulate each other in unhealthy ways. This is a problem within many families, especially during the holidays.

Here are five ways to survive guilt trips from your parents and in-laws this holiday season:

1. Learn to recognize the difference between an appropriate versus inappropriate invitation.

Appropriate: "Your father and I would like to invite you to come visit us for Christmas."
Inappropriate: "We expect you to follow the family tradition of celebrating Christmas at our house."

Appropriate: "We'd love to get together with you for the holidays if you're available."
Inappropriate: "You'll break your mother's heart if she can't see you during the holidays."

2. Make your spouse a priority over your parents. Don't say "no" to your partner so you can say "yes" to your parents. Communicate with your husband or wife and work out a loving compromise about where and with whom to spend the holidays. Then, unite as a couple to share this decision with relatives. Behave as adults on an equal level to them; their needs do not outrank yours. It's perfectly okay, for example, to start your own traditions instead of ignoring your needs in order to meet your parents’ expectations.

3. Be prepared to decline invitations in a tactful, yet firm manner as needed. Or better yet, initiate holiday plans on your terms before any relatives bring up the subject. Here are some assertive statements you can use to initiate or decline family celebrations:

* "We'd like to invite you to come spend Christmas with us. We're available December 23rd through the 26th."
* "Thanks for the invitation, Mom, but we've already made other plans."
* "We can't get together for Christmas, but we're available for Easter if that works for you."
* "We can't come to your house for the holidays, but you're welcome to come to our house instead."
* "We'd love for you to spend the holidays with us, but since we don't have a lot of extra room, we need for you to stay at a hotel. Would you like for us to give you the names of a few hotels near our house?"
* "It's not going to work for us to get together this Christmas, but let's plan on spending next Christmas together."

4. Learn to recognize the difference between appropriate and inappropriate responses from parents and in-laws.

Appropriate: "We'll miss having you come visit, but we certainly understand your need to celebrate at your house this year."
Inappropriate: "All of your brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles will be here. You'll disappoint everyone if you don't come. Holidays are meant to be spent with family."

Appropriate: "It's too bad we can't get together this Christmas, but we'll look forward to spending next Christmas with you."
Inappropriate: "You don't visit us often enough. Our friends' kids visit them a lot more than you visit us."

Appropriate: "Thanks for the invitation! We'll be glad to stay in a hotel, and we'll discuss those dates you gave us and get back with you."
Inappropriate: "It's very disrespectful of you to limit which dates we can visit you; we'll come and go when it's convenient for us. We are your parents; don’t insult us by asking us to stay at a hotel."

5. Learn to let your parents, in-laws, siblings and relatives be upset with you. Just because your mother-in-law is angry or hurt doesn't mean you did something wrong. Don't cave in just because your brother accuses you of being uncaring. Stand firm even if your aunt gossips about you, glares at you or gives you the silent treatment. Rather than apologizing or giving excuses—which puts you in an inferior position—make assertive statements such as these:

* "I'm sorry you're disappointed, but we've made our decision."
* "I'm sorry you're upset, but this isn't your decision and it's not up for discussion."
* "I'm not willing to discuss this with you anymore. Is there something else you'd like to talk about instead?"

Healthy family relationships are based on love, mutual respect, freedom and honesty—not guilt, obligation and entitlement. Starting with your own behavior, have the courage to bring about positive changes in your family interactions this holiday season.

Jenna D. Barry is the author of "A Wife’s Guide to In-laws: How to Gain Your Husband’s Loyalty Without Killing His Parents." Married 15 years, Jenna learned how to gain her husband’s loyalty through communication, persistence, and a whole lot of love. She leads a support group for daughters-in-law and has a website at

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