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Navigating Family Gatherings With Young Children

Supporting caregiver strategies so everyone can thrive.

Key points

  • Caregivers often feel pressure during family visits—to parent a certain way or for their children to “behave.”
  • Inadequate communication and unrealistic expectations contribute to the stress that caregivers feel.
  • Preparing ahead of time, communicating boundaries, and having a plan for worst-case scenarios can ease stress.

Co-authored by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW.

While babies and toddlers might not be at their best at family gatherings, caregivers can also feel the strain as parenting feels extra stressful when done “under the microscope” of extended family. ZERO TO THREE’s 2016 Parent Survey, Tuning In, found that 9 out of 10 parents feel judged almost all the time. When caregivers feel judged and under pressure for their children to behave in certain ways at family gatherings, their stress levels often rise, adding fuel to the fire. Preplanning for the intensity of navigating multiple priorities—when child behavior and parenting are on display—may ease some tension. Here are some ideas to suggest to caregivers:

Source: LightField Studios/Shutterstock
Source: LightField Studios/Shutterstock
  • Decide what is important and what to let go. If caregivers are concerned about several issues—grandparents asking for hugs, relatives noticing picky eating, or managing tantrums—it is smart to prioritize. Maybe it’s paramount for a family to ensure consent with regard to hugging, but they can tolerate side-eye during a meltdown or Aunt Sue’s comment about the three rolls the toddler had for dinner. Adult family members could mention other baby and toddler behaviors such as breastfeeding/chestfeeding vs. bottle feeding, toileting, thumb-sucking, shyness, and more. Pick the key topics to prepare for.
  • Try some FaceTime/video chat calls before the event. Geographic separation can make it challenging for babies and toddlers to maintain close bonds with their extended family members (McClure and Barr, 2017). Young children have short memories and if they will be seeing relatives for the first time in a long while, refresh their memory with a visual reintroduction.
  • Communicate ahead of time on issues that are crucial. When there is a big divide between the generations in parenting style, it may be supportive to send a note or email to set the stage for a smooth visit. Caregivers can appreciate grandparents for their role while also setting boundaries. For example, a previous generation might not see the harm in insisting on a hug from a young child, while current caregivers may prioritize bodily autonomy. Caregivers could benefit from sending a short article of explanation ahead of time.
  • Cultivate some go-to phrases for diffusing tension. Sometimes it’s useful to have some responses prepared. If someone comments on a child’s picky eating, a caregiver might lighten the mood by saying, “Don’t worry, they will eat something green tomorrow,” or, “I promise you he eats more when he’s not distracted by so many beautiful family members.” Parental confidence goes a long way toward settling the nerves of the other adults in the room. Knowing what to say about the “hot topics” helps. If a relative wonders aloud why a 3-year-old isn’t using the toilet yet, the caregiver can joke, “We’re not too worried and pretty sure she won’t go off to college in diapers!”
  • Have a plan if things get heated. When emotions start to run high—either the children’s or adult’s—have a go-to move of a silly song or short stroller ride ready to go. Knowing what you will do if a child has a meltdown, or an adult gets upset is reassuring. You might want to ask ahead about a quiet place to retreat because even a quick "we need to take a break and will be right back” can deescalate distress or hurt feelings.

While holidays with the family can be harrowing, they can also be fun and enriching. Babies and toddlers are unpredictable even in the best of circumstances, so planning ahead for ups and downs in new situations is wise. Caregivers who communicate clearly, set boundaries, and manage expectations may reap the reward of a more relaxed visit where everyone can enjoy themselves a bit more—even the little ones.


McClure, E. and Barr, R. (2017). Building Family Relationships from a Distance: Supporting Connections with Babies and Toddlers Using Video and Video Chat. In: Barr, R., Linebarger, D. (eds) Media Exposure During Infancy and Early Childhood. Springer.…

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