How to Manage Holiday Triggers and Toxic Relationships

While increased stress over the holidays is common, there are things we can do to protect our emotional needs — and our children’s. Guidepost rallied some expertise from Dr. Brandy Schumann, who specializes in the psychological, social, and emotional wellbeing of young children, adolescents, and families.

Jenna Wawrzyniec

Content Specialist

The holidays can generate conflicting emotions. We may feel gratitude and joy sharing special traditions with our children. On the other hand, we may also feel grief, stress, and conflict if the holidays spur past traumas and triggers. 

There is an added complexity when we navigate these conflicts with children now watching and listening. The Montessori practice of grace and courtesy reminds us just how powerful it is when we lead by example for our children; If we want to instill traits of kindness, empathy, self-awareness, and respect, we must model these traits ourselves.

But leading with grace during heightened times of stress is easier said than done — which is why we turned to Dr. Brandy Schumann for meaningful guidance.

Schumann, mother of three, holds a doctorate in counseling and has more than a decade of experience. She runs her own practice based in North Texas, Therapy on the Square, where she delivers her specialty of Play Therapy from the top-ranked play therapy program in the world. She holds numerous certifications including Child-Parent Relationship Therapy Supervisor, Child Centered Play Therapist Supervisor, and Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor. She is also a Counseling Faculty Member at Southern Methodist University, where she specializes in working with children.

Social distancing showed us the value of social boundaries 

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, shutdowns and quarantines gave us universal permission to say no to events that we didn’t want to attend. With normalcy returning in 2021, so are all the social obligations. Families may feel fatigued managing ongoing risk assessment, and holiday plans might feel heavier than usual as a result of this added mental load.

Even if an invitation to gather is safer for your family this year, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost a good reason to decline. Honoring your social capacity is something worth protecting in a post-pandemic norm.  

"So many of us spend our childhoods piling on social obligations, and then we spend adulthood unpacking it,” Schumann said. “With the sense of normalcy that is coming back, people are fielding pressure towards everything they should be doing. It’s okay to hold onto permission to say no."

When we over-extend ourselves trying to meet others’ needs, we detract from our ability to honor what we truly want. This is a sure-fire way to add unnecessary stress through the holidays. Honoring social boundaries is healthy for children to absorb, too. The old parenting adage of, you signed up for this, so you will not quit, can lead to this exact conflict later in life — where they will struggle to honor their limits at the cost of their own wellbeing.  

Our parenting tends to change during the holidays

Holidays bring a lack of structure, which can be stressful from the child’s perspective. School patterns change, and our children spend more time at home. But, we are less available as we get consumed with decorating, organizing, shopping, cooking. As a result, children may communicate their stress through more tantrums.

This can be further triggering for us. Any time our own stress level is up, it is harder to consciously parent the way that we want to. We might get more aggressive, and we may grow insecure about our children’s behaviors when others are around. Instead of modeling the social courtesies we desire our children to have, we might start to force higher expectations upon them that aren’t developmentally-appropriate. You have to say thank you! However, this can make things worse.  

"You teach respect by being respectful. In our society, we often mis-pair obedience with respect. True respect doesn’t have to do with compliance, that’s obedience," said Schumann.

When we catch ourselves piling pressure on our children, it can be helpful to get curious about where this is coming from so that we can release it. Children will learn through experience and with less judgment from us, and we should free ourselves from today’s mainstream notion that everything has to be a teaching moment.

Align with goals to minimize friction

If our stress feels directed towards extended family, it might have something to do with our roles clashing, and a lack of alignment on who does what, and how.

"Our family has certain developmental roles, and we are expected to fit into those roles. I’m a daughter still, even though in my everyday life I am no longer the daughter,” Schumann explained. “It’s comparable to the stress we might feel towards a high school reunion, where we have changed, but everyone still expects you to be the same."

This friction can feel particularly challenging if we are choosing to parent differently than how we were raised. Not only do we have differing roles, but a difference in approach. We can hyper focus on how we think it impacts our child, when really it might be more about our childhood.

“Setting boundaries might be us attempting to re-parent ourselves," Schumann said. "If I’m triggered by hearing my mother say something to my daughter that she once said with me, it might be unfinished business that I need to deal with myself and is actually less about my child.”

We might even feel triggered when a grandparent says something loving and respectful towards our child, if that’s not how they treated us. In this situation, feelings of resentment and jealousy can arise. 

So, what can you do ahead of a visit that may have friction? 

  1. Set your boundaries. How are you willing to be treated? What is important to you?
  2. Clarify your roles. Who is responsible for what? If you live in a two-parent household, openly discuss with your partner what happens if one of you gets offended, who is going to address it, and how it’s going to be addressed.  

Boundaries aren’t just for keeping people out; they can bring people closer 

What are we trying to accomplish with boundaries? Are we trying to keep people out, or are we actually trying to bring people in? Often in new parenthood, our desire is the latter, and so it’s helpful to reflect on whether or not we’re conveying this in our delivery. 

“If we see our boundaries as a wall, then it can feel like a threat,” Schumann said. “Parents are doing the best they can with what they know, and there is power in sharing what we know.” 

Connection is more effective than correction with children, and the same is true for adults. Take discipline, for example. If your child misbehaves and someone offers a punishment — but you don’t use punishment as a tactic — set the boundary in a way that seeks to inform. 

So instead of, “Don’t do that,” try, “We are working really hard not to yell or punish because our child is doing a lot of yelling or hitting, and that is not okay in any direction. Can you help us with that?” 

Know the difference between supporting and enabling

If a relationship starts to feel toxic, consider if your support has turned into enablement. The difference can be a fine line, but it can look something like this: I love you and I accept you, but I am not accepting of these behaviors.

Sometimes we put stress on ourselves in thinking, should we cut off this relationship? Schumann points out that this is rarely all-or-nothing, especially in different cultures where the consequence of cutting out a family member comes with a much higher social risk. It can simply be a ‘demotion,’ where instead of spending the holidays together you now exchange cards or just do a phone call.

“It’s about honoring what you need in the moment and checking in with yourself," said Schumann. "Why do you keep going back to this relationship, and can you fulfill this need in a different relationship that is more supportive?”

We can’t change people, and we can’t demand that people change — which is why boundaries and self-reflection are so valuable.

Kids are whole people too

We should take this framework a step further and ensure that we are honoring our children’s needs with equal care. The ability to listen to one’s own body and intuition is a skill that develops over time, but we can hinder this by ignoring the limits our children try to communicate. 

“We do this with Santa, which can be absolutely terrifying for many children,” Schumann said. “We place the child on this stranger’s lap, with their back facing this strangely-dressed person. Then, we as their trusted parent back away, and it’s no wonder they start crying and screaming.”

The problem compounds when there are repeated moments like this where we tell our children that their instincts don’t matter: 

  • Cold-weather attire: The child doesn’t want to wear a jacket outside, but the parent forces it, which sends the message to the child: I know your body better than you do. A respectful solution is to offer for the child to simply take the jacket along in case they get cold, rather than overriding their own assessment. 
  • Forced affection: Well-meaning relatives may come into the home and insist on a hug from the child, but the child may be uncomfortable and decide not to hug. That is a choice we should support, not coerce: You don’t recognize grandma even though she loves you a lot. You are feeling nervous, and you want to stay by me until you feel comfortable.

"When we teach our kids from an early age not to listen to their gut, they will become teenagers and adults who struggle to advocate for themselves in uncomfortable situations. If we want children to trust their internal valuing process, we need to make sure we are not doing things that offend that," Schumann said.

Learn to validate 

There is a tool used in Play Therapy called tracking that parents can use in all kinds of situations when children are struggling. It gives a voice to your child's behaviors and emotions, which helps them eventually communicate how they're feeling. It’s beneficial for both younger and older children. A few key tips:

  • Reflect back to the child what they are doing and give a voice to what they are feeling. “You’re feeling scared, and you’re getting as far away as you can right now.” This helps them identify their emotions.
  • Communicate directly to and at the child's level. If your child is uncomfortable greeting a new person, for example, meet your child where they are. “You don’t know this person, and you’re not ready to say hi yet.” This is more respectful than skipping the child and telling the other adult, “He’s just shy.” In the first scenario, you are validating your child. In the latter, you're labeling your child.

"Validating is probably the top skill I’d want parents to learn — validating someone’s feelings even if they’re doing something opposite of what we expect or desire,” Schumann added. “A child will not hear us until we hear them."

This article was based on an interview that has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Looking for more ideas? 

Check out one of Schumann’s recommended resources, the Self Esteem Shop, an online health, wellness, and therapy resource center.

Meet the Author

Jenna Wawrzyniec

Jenna is a journalist and writer whose parenting journey transformed after implementing Montessori at home with her three children. She is a passionate advocate for bridging Montessori to the mainstream as a means to build community, empower parent-child relationships, and honor learning as the lifelong journey that it is. She holds a Montessori in the Home certificate from The Prepared Montessorian.

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