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What To Do If Relatives Say Hurtful Things To Your Kid At Christmas

How to prepare, repair, and help your kid move on.

A lot can happen in a year, and kids especially can change a lot between Christmases. Some of the changes or choices your kids have grown into can be interpreted by certain unfiltered relatives as an invitation to editorialize. For many of us, the holidays can be a heady mix of seeing relatives that are not a part of your family’s daily life and a feeling of intense pressure to live up to certain (often arbitrary and subjective) standards of appearance or behavior that aren’t in line with your own world view. Though we may have thought we’d made peace long ago with Uncle so-and-so and his unsolicited opinions, the claws come out fast when his comments are directed at our kids. (So much for peace and joy.) Many parents struggle with the tension between wanting to gather with loved ones at the holidays but also protect kids from potentially hurtful, ignorant comments that they might hear from certain relatives. So, how can parents prepare or shield their kids from unwanted input or awkward comments in these situations and still participate in family gatherings? We asked three therapists who specialize in children and families to help us navigate one of the holiday season’s trickiest situations.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Nearly every family has at least one ‘wild card’ who can be counted on to say something out-there at the dinner table. But the fact that you probably know exactly who you are worried about (and possibly even have a word-for-word idea of what might come out of their mouth) is actually a good thing: it means you can prepare yourself and your child for any family awkwardness ahead, assures parent coach Marcilie Smith-Boyle. “There is a member of my extended family that we know is going to say something offensive, and so we kind of joke about it as a family,” she explains. “I ask my kids, if Aunt so-and-so says something offensive, what’s our plan?

Parents should consider the relationship you and your child have with the relative that you’re worried about, as well as your kids’ ages, adds Jody Baumstein, LCSW, licensed therapist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. But, if we suspect someone might say something insulting, hurtful or awkward to your child at a family gathering, you should have a plan to speak up kindly but firmly and shut down the conversation. “If we want our children to grow up to be adults who speak up for themselves, we have to model it,” Baumstein explains. “Women in particular are taught when they're young to be overly polite to the point where somebody might be saying or doing something really harmful, and we’re not speaking up. But we can speak up directly and firmly without being aggressive.”

Consider talking to relatives ahead of time

If you’re close with your extended family, and it’s OK with your kids (if they’re the topic of conversation), you may want to intercept challenging conversations before they have a chance to arise. “For certain families, it can really help if Mom is talking to her siblings or parents before [a gathering] and just says, I want to give you a heads up, we just got this diagnosis. Or, I just want to give you a heads up, she’s exploring her gender and this is how we're handling it in the family,” suggests Dr. Janet Lydecker, PhD., an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine who specializes in teen mental health.

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A proactive approach is something that Baumstein also encourages when possible, because reacting to hurtful or offensive comments in the moment often results in heated exchanges. “In the heat of the moment, naturally we become very heightened and emotionally dysregulated. Nobody’s having a productive conversation at that point,” she says. So, reaching out to the relative you’re worried about ahead of time, with kindness and a cool-head, is ideal. She suggests saying something that acknowledges positive intent, and then drawing firm boundaries around what your family’s comfort levels are. Try something like: I can't wait to see you, I love when we spend the holidays together. I want to give you a heads up that we’re dealing with [X] right now. It's a really sensitive subject, and it's best that we don't talk about it. Thank you in advance for being so supportive and understanding.

Of course, not every family member will respond positively to that approach, Baumstein adds, saying that it’s a good idea to also have a ‘plan B.’ If they are not receptive to your wishes, then what? “You can't control that person, but you can control yourself. Does that mean shutting down the conversation? Does that mean leaving, if you’re in somebody else's home? There’s no right or wrong here, but you can think about protecting yourself and your kids, and not just letting something continue to happen that's harmful.”

How to support an elementary school-aged child

The degree to which you involve your child in navigating awkward family dynamics at holiday gatherings will depend a lot on their age, says Lydecker. For the littler kids — elementary-age and younger — Lydecker says the parents are largely in charge of managing the situation and protecting their child: although you cannot completely shield them from the world, you can still be a buffer.

“At this age, it’s completely appropriate to shelter the child, or help them not interpret the offending comment as critical,” she explains. It’s also appropriate to stand up for the child by saying something you hope the relative can hear and understand and suggests “something that can just stop the conversation.” For example, if a relative comments on your child’s food choices, you might say: In our family, we don't talk about eating choices at the dinner table. Experts agree that firm, clear and direct is the way to go, so that your message cannot be misinterpreted.

How to prepare & support your teenager

If you have teens at home, it will come as no surprise that helping them navigate awkward family situations will look and feel quite different than it does with younger kids, but parents still have an essential supportive role to play. “Teens are very sensitive to things that are said and implied, and are also very sensitive to how their parents handle it,” Lydecker says. Rather than trying to completely shield their kids, parents can think of their teenager as a partner in deciding how to handle whatever may come up.

“Before the gathering, have a conversation with your teen and ask them what they’d like you to do to do if, say, Grandma mentions the color of their hair, gender, eating habits or weight. Invite your teenager to let you know what they’d like your role to be,” Lydecker suggests. Don’t be afraid to ask questions so that you’re really clear on what they want. Do they want you to defend them? Or would they want to have the opportunity to stand up for themselves? Offer them the chance to think in advance about if they want to be the one to set their own boundaries.

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She also encourages parents to help their teenagers think through a few possible scenarios. You might ask: What if someone says something, and you thought you wanted to handle it, but you actually want me to support you? How would I know that? Usually, teens and parents can come up with a plan of support together pretty easily, she says.

“There are kids who are very proud of the choices they've made — getting healthier, or their appearance, or their body size — have really been working on owning it and building confidence in that area. They need to be able to defend who they are and who they’re becoming, and that is true with gender as well,” Lydecker says, reminding parents to make space for their teens to speak up for themselves and resist the temptation to rush to defend them (unless they’ve been explicitly asked to do so.) “Give a pause for the teen to be able to respond. When they're ready to advocate for themselves and take a position, all the strengths of teen idealism and altruism can really come out in a beautiful way.”

The part you do have control over: How they process it all

No matter what happened, after the gathering you have the chance to do the most important work of all: processing what just happened, together. Depending on your family’s dynamics, it may be that some off-color things were said and you didn’t end up addressing it in the moment. On the drive home, though, it’s a good idea to check in with your kids about everything they’ve just seen and heard (some of which may have been pretty different from what they see and hear in their normal day-to-day life.)

How to help your little kid process it all

Even preschool-aged kids can pick up on a lot, says Smith-Boyle. Rather than telling them what happened and how to feel, she suggests gently checking-in but asking what she calls “curiosity questions” like:

  • I noticed that someone said [a word or phrase] and it made me feel a little weird. Did you notice it?
  • How did you feel?
  • What have you learned about related to that kind of comment?
  • If you could ask the person to do a do-over, what might you ask them to do or say instead?

“Make it an opportunity to allow your child to draw out their own inner wisdom. Curiosity questions help the child reflect themselves and draw out their own thoughts,” she explains. It’s possible, particularly with younger kids, that your child didn't notice the remark(s) at all, and in which case you can decide if it’s worthy of conversation or not.

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How to help your teenager process it all afterwards

With teenagers, Lydecker says, processing together is essential. That means sharing your feelings if that’s helpful or necessary, and asking them how they felt about what happened. And then, no matter how it all went, she says, “it's important to reinforce that they did a good job, and rose to a challenge, whether it went the way they wanted it to or not.” To offer support and validation, she says parents might say things like:

  • I'm so proud of you for being brave enough to answer.
  • I'm so proud of you for staying in the room while I answered.
  • I'm so proud of you for remembering that this is family and they love you. They just don't always express it in a way that feels good.
  • I'm grateful that you did this, and I'm impressed by you.

Whatever you can authentically say “I’m proud of you” for will be meaningful to them and have a lasting impact in terms of how they frame the experience. “They probably won't show it,” Lydecker acknowledges. “But, it will do wonders in terms of helping them have resilience.”

While none of the experts suggest shying away from difficult conversations, they do all focus on the fact that these are once-a-year gatherings and likely ones that you fundamentally do want to attend. “Most relatives are not trying to do harm, or trying to start conflict. It happens because people don’t know what to say or are uncomfortable,” Lydecker adds. If there were intentional malice at play, she adds, most of us would opt out of a situation like that.

If there is a truly hurtful pattern that we encounter repeatedly, though, Baumstein urges parents to feel confident in drawing a boundary to protect themselves and their children. “We don't have control over other people and what they say, but we do have control over their access to us, and access to our kids. If somebody is doing and saying harmful things, we really need to question, do they deserve access to me? Do they deserve access to my kids?”

Hopefully, the loved ones that surround your family this holiday season keep earning their place in your lives. And if difficult moments do arise, resilience is close at hand.


Dr. Janet Lydecker, PhD., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine

Jody Baumstein, LCSW, licensed therapist at Strong 4 Life

Marcilie Smith Boyle, PCC, CPCC, Certified Executive Coach, Career Transition Coach, and Parenting Coach