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Grandparents' Holiday Survival Guide

5 tips on how to avoid hurt feelings if your children and grandchildren will be elsewhere.

En español │ Rita, my hairdresser and the mother of three, was distraught. "I dread the holidays," she said when I asked her what was wrong. "Both sets of grandparents insist on having us for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That means two gigantic meals on both days. We end up feeling stuffed and sick, and at least one of the kids has a meltdown.

See also: Conversation starters for the Thanksgiving table.

"I wish our parents would alternate holidays, but neither side will budge," she sighed.

Grandparents Holiday Survival Guide

Image Source/Corbis

Keep grandchildren front and center by setting up a holiday rotation for hosting or visiting family.

I sighed, too. I wish I had Rita's family problems. My two granddaughters and their parents — my son and daughter-in-law — live in France, and this year my husband and I won't be spending any of the holidays with them.

No question, for many of us this festive season brings up feelings that lie dormant for 11 months of the year. It doesn't matter if we live in the same town as the grandkids or 10,000 miles away: We long to celebrate the holidays with our adult children and their kids — and so do the other grandparents. My family has three sets of grandparents, which make the mathematical (and emotional) logarithms more complicated than back in the days when fewer people got divorced — and I know plenty of families where the grandparents come in sets of four.

So, what to do when your daughter announces that this year she and her husband plan to take the kids skiing with his parents from Dec. 24 through New Year's Day? Or your son informs you that his brood will be visiting his father (the man who divorced you) and his father's new family over winter break?

Here are five strategies to help you make it through the holidays without tears.

Plan ahead. To avoid unsettling last-minute surprises, discuss holiday plans with your adult children as early in the year as feasible. That way, if you're unable to join them on the actual holidays, you can plan an alternate time to celebrate. Note to Rita's parents and in-laws: Roasted turkey tastes just as good (or terrible, depending on your palate) on Dec. 1 as it does on Thanksgiving Day.

Next: Make alternative plans for visiting grandkids. »

Be realistic. Though I secretly believe that my son and his family should want to spend every holiday with my husband and me, I know this simply isn't in the cards. In fact, soon after becoming a grandmother I concluded that all the grandparents in our newly expanded family constellation were bound to feel disappointed and left out some of the time. Knowing this helps me take my own disappointments less personally.

Divide and conquer. Many families divide the holidays the same way every year, thereby avoiding the stress of annual negotiations. One set of grandparents may play host on Thanksgiving, while another set has dibs on Christmas. This tactic can ease tensions in any extended family, but comes in especially handy in families where religions are mixed. I've yet to meet a Jewish grandmother who feels possessive about the Easter bunny.

Think outside the goose. This year, I decided to skip Thanksgiving and Christmas altogether, and visit my son and his family in October and January. My disappointment over not seeing the kids on these days is easily trumped by the pleasures of being with them when I'm not competing with the other grandparents, when my son and daughter-in-law are less stressed and airfares are cheaper!

Practice generosity. This is what the holiday spirit is all about. Like my hairdresser, many young parents feel caught between enjoying time off with their kids and pleasing multiple sets of grandparents, which is no easy task. Be flexible and cut your adult children and your grandparent counterparts some slack. And remember, your grandchildren will be thrilled to see you — and accept gifts — any day of the year.

Barbara Graham's latest book is The New York Times best-seller Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother. A widely-published essayist, she is a regular columnist for

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This article was originally published on Novermber 23, 2010.