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How to Handle a Dysfunctional Thanksgiving

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Dear Catherine,

Per usual, my family of five (three girls, 3, 7 and 12) is headed to my parents' house for Thanksgiving. Every year I brace myself for all of my parenting to be underminded, and it usually happens within the first hour. On the one hand, I get that it's only a few times a year that my kids get to eat whatever sugar is available, hear my dad talk down to my mom (not the best example of being a strong woman for three girls), and have to stand up for my own household values as my mom and dad tell me how ridiculous I'm being for eating organic, limiting TV and generally not behaving like an absent parent (ahem, 1980s).

Even though I know it should roll off my back as I return to the safety of my own home, which is run how my partner and I like it to be run, I always have a holiday hangover. I wind up cranky, defensive and a little depressed. How do I manage to take care of myself and my family during the holidays? And what am I doing wrong that this keeps happening every single year?

Signed,

It's a Stereotype Because It's True

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Dear Stereotype,

Just reading your question is making me crave a Klonopin. In fact, it sounds like you could ghostwrite the next Jonathan Franzen book with this setup in your Klonopin-induced sleep.

I’m sorry Thanksgiving is such a messy chore for you. Last week I answered a question about dealing with parents who criticize the parenting of their children, and it was tricky to rope in the French model for help. You have brought me the inverse problem—children who disapprove of their own parents’ example. I’m afraid we’ll have to leave the French out of this one, too. The problem, as far as I can tell, is international.

Admittedly, this is much easier said than done, but if there is any way you can let go of your ire, even just a little bit, it will be worth it.

My dead-level advice is to do what it takes to make the most of the family time, and see if you can find a way to enjoy your parents, massive flaws and all. Unless your parents are truly ogres,* there must be something good to focus on. It sounds like you and your partner are careful, open and loving parents—and one of the best things you can do for your children (society, and yourselves) is to give your kids an example of gracious parental respect. Maybe have a casual talk with your girls before the visit and prepare them in a way that makes you comfortable that they won’t be confused by the mixed messages. It’ll be the most difficult to explain warped dynamics to your 7-year-old, but always keep in mind that you are ultimately in charge. (OK, that last part is pretty damn French.)

I am getting a little dewy in the eyes as I type, pondering your dilemma. My father died of a stroke last March, and I would endure his irritating rants on a constant loop if I could just spend another holiday with him. This, by the way, is a man who could spout for hours about how “ranch dressing is nothing but hype.” While I did enjoy my father immensely while he was alive, I do now regret wasting any of my time with him being angry.

Admittedly, this is much easier said than done, but if there is any way you can let go of your ire, even just a little bit, it will be worth it.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of a few glasses of wine to take the edge off. (There are those French again!)

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I sincerely hope this is helpful and that you have a cordial—no, I hope you have a downright sweet—holiday.

Best,

Catherine

*If your parents truly are bad news (some are—a sad fact of life), take a year off and try a nice French restaurant. Hey—more French! Two years ago, just my husband and our daughters spent Thanksgiving on the town, and it was tres fun.

Have a French (or any nationality) parenting question for Catherine? Email her at mommecs@bermanbraun.com.

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