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Don’t want to feel rushed from one family event to the next this year? Use these strategies for setting boundaries and doing the holidays your way.

Photo: iStockphoto

Getting anxious about spending time with your extended family over the holidays? Me too. Rum-and-eggnog-infused political debates, passive-aggressive gifts for the kids and backhanded comments about your parenting can put a damper on the festive mood.

Family gatherings can be physically and emotionally exhausting for a number of reasons, yet we agree to so many of them year after year. The calendar gets even fuller when you throw a partner and kids into the mix. Juggling the demands and traditions of multiple families can be tough, leaving little room to create customs of your own. Give yourself an early Christmas present by starting to set some boundaries before it all begins. Here’s how.

1. Do a needs assessment
The first step to setting boundaries is understanding your needs and the needs of the people in your home. Take some time to think about everyone’s emotional, physical, spiritual and social needs, and keep them in mind when evaluating whether or not you can commit to an engagement. For example, it may be stressful to be at a family gathering that includes your ex—honour your feelings and skip it. Your kids may turn into little Scrooges with fewer than 10 hours of sleep, so staying up until midnight to ring in the New Year is out too. Being clear on what you and your family members need to have a happy, healthy holiday season will help guide your decisions.

2. If you have a partner, get on the same page
You may not want to participate in the pricey annual ski trip, but perhaps it’s a longstanding tradition that your partner loves. Have an open, honest conversation and get on the same page about what you can commit to as a family based on your collective needs. Set aside time for this important subject—don’t discuss it in fits and starts as you pack lunches. Get out the calendar and commit to a realistic schedule of celebrations. Be prepared for disagreements, and if you reach an impasse, you can always divide and conquer. Cuddling up with the kids and watching Frozen while your partner hits the slopes sounds pretty good.  Little girl hugging her mom

3. Clearly communicate your plans well in advance
If you’re skipping New Year’s Day brunch at your parents’ place, New Year’s Eve is not the time to break it to them. Share yourlans weeks in advance, and be prepared to explain why you’re opting out. While it’s tempting to make excuses in an attempt to spare feelings, if you’re not truthful and direct, you’ll have to come up with a new story next year. Keep it simple, stick to the facts and practise delivering your message. “Now that the kids are older, we’d like to start our own New Year’s tradition and will be going snowshoeing,” for example. If you’re met with opposition, remind the other party that they may not like your decision, but it’s yours to make. In a partnership, it’s best to communicate with your respective sides of the family, but it’s important to avoid blaming the other party. If possible, presenting a united front together in person is ideal and helps avoid any misinterpretation of tone over the phone or email.

4. Commit to one marquee event—or even host it
With some families, the holidays can be an advent calendar of events, with something popping up every day. Instead of half-heartedly making an appearance at a few gatherings, commit to one marquee event and bring your A game and your best baking. If travelling out of town to visit family is taking a toll on you (not to mention the kids, who are crammed into car seats for hours), consider hosting a celebration at your home and having everyone come to you. Bonus: You get to control how many candy canes the kids consume.

5. Give yourself a break and help relatives spend solo time with your kids
Just because you don’t want to spend time with your in-laws doesn’t mean your children shouldn’t. Having strong relationships with grandparents is good for kids’ social development. Plus, it’s often the children, not you, who relatives really want to spend time with over the holidays. If you’re comfortable leaving your kids alone with family members, facilitating fun holiday activities can be a win-win. Drop off the kids at their grandparents’ place with a gingerbread house kit and finish your last-minute shopping.

By setting some simple boundaries, you’re sure to enjoy a more relaxing holiday season—and you may even enjoy your in-laws’ company.

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