It’s that time of year when expat families start to pack their bags and prepare their list of things to take back home for the holidays. Going home for Christmas can be both exciting and nerve-wracking.
There is already a frenzy of festive activities here, including school events, office socials, bazaars, and holiday celebrations with friends. There are play dates, packing lists, and pet boarding to worry about. Depending on where you are going to, there could also be a completely different wardrobe, entertainment kits for the flight, medicine for the carry-on bag, and sick bags. Not to mention all the presents and little souvenirs of China you are eager to share with everyone back home.
It is a lot to think about, and you haven’t even gotten on the plane yet.
Invariably, by the time you make it to your destination, the family is a bundle of nerves. You’re tired from all that you’ve left behind, looking forward to being reunited with family and friends, and excited about Santa’s special visit, all at once.
One thing I have learned from several years of enduring a 13-hour transcontinental flight, a 7-hour time difference, and the change from winter to temperate climes of 28 °C, is to manage expectations. The simplest parts are the little things: don’t overpack your calendar, leave lots of room to get leisurely from one place to another, and don’t be so surprised when someone is grumpy and not feeling the Christmas spirit. This goes for both children and adults, and is usually very fleeting. It is extremely important to enjoy yourself while you’re there, but pace yourself because you’ll need your energy for re-entering the real world after one or two weeks.
But while there are many things to look forward to about going home, there is one not-so-welcome reality – dealing with relatives who want to be helpful but end up showing their concern by pointing out your failures as a parent.
As an expat family, it is most likely just your nuclear family that deals with each other on a daily basis. For better or worse, your children have either one or both parents – and that’s it. Not seeing extended family on a regular basis also means no comparing yourself with distant relatives (like contrasting your efforts with how your cousin handles her model family). Very often, your parenting has had to adjust to take into consideration your family’s very international experience.
And this final point is one that people who have never lived away from home may not understand. Since going home is, yet again, to put yourself in a fishbowl for people to closely observe, sometimes it feels like your every move is being watched with eagle eyes. Yes, we may love our extended families dearly, but sometimes unexpected altercations with interfering relatives can leave us feeling upset. Before allowing these run-ins to ruin the entire vacation, breathe deeply and heed some sage advice.
One of my favorite writers on parenting issues, Bonnie Harris, has some very useful information to share for dealing with interfering relatives. Say, for instance, that a relative is trying to parent your child, shouting at them, or dealing with them in a way you don’t agree with. In such a case, Harris suggests you advocate for your child by saying you will handle the situation and taking them to another room. After the event, talk to your child and acknowledge that it must have been difficult for him or her to be yelled at. Empower them to think of ways they can handle it if it happens again. Don’t tell your child what to do, but have them come up with the ideas themselves. The goal is for your child to feel validated in their feelings, without suggesting that the offender (your relative) is a bad person.
And then comes the harder part, approaching the person involved and acknowledging that your child’s behavior may have upset him or her, as it may have done you as well. Point out that the best way to help you is to leave you to handle your child’s behavior. You may find that you can gain their support more easily when you phrase it as asking for their help, rather than blaming them for their behavior.
Try any of the following ways of phrasing your ideas. Only use what you are comfortable with. In the end, you know your relatives and what will be acceptable to them the best. But remember that the goal is to get your message across and protect both your children and yourself:
”I totally understand that you want only the best for my kids. I am trying some different approaches and what I need most from you is your support.”
“I find that she has a very difficult temperament. In order to gain her cooperation, I need to be understanding of where she’s coming from first.”
“I have tried what you suggest and it only exacerbates the problem with him. He will make the rest of the day miserable for all of us if I put him in his room.”
“I know you think I should be harder on her but I have found that that only means she will be harder on me.”
“I’ve been learning a new approach and it’s really hard to change old habits so I’m not getting it just right yet. I would really appreciate your patience with me and your understanding that I am a work in progress right now.”
“You may not approve of how I am handling the situation but it is my choice for now, and I’d really appreciate your support rather than telling me what you think I should do.”
For more parenting tips for dealing with interfering relatives, see Harris’ blog here. And good luck!
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado