Ask Amelia: Surviving the Holidays With My Mother-In-Law

The holidays can be a wonderful time to be with family, but they can also have some challenges. Here are some great tips from Amelia Peck, LMFT on handling issues challenging family members, including your mother-in-law, during the holidays.

Dear Amelia, I feel like nothing I do is ever good enough for my difficult mother-in-law. She is so overbearing. She acts like she was the perfect mother. Her children were always sooo perfect, her house is always perfectly spotless, and she’s a gourmet cook! My life, on the other hand, is a mess! Sometimes I feel like a terrible parent around her, and I worry about how it impacts my marriage. How do I survive another holiday season of “family togetherness” with my in-laws? – Survivor of the Seasons

Dear Survivor,

Holidays are a bear, to begin with. Adding in feelings of judgment and guilt does not help the holiday spirit flow. Unfortunately, relationship tension with a mother-in-law is about as old a holiday tradition as the Christmas tree. In-law relationships are touchy and can breed more conflict that you’d like during this season. Here are a few ways to keep your holiday joy and enjoy your family no matter what anyone else’s issues are!

Pick Your Mindset

If you want to stay in the holiday spirit, do it. Decide for yourself who determines how you feel and don’t let your husband’s mother mix in conflict. Why should anyone make you feel the way you don’t want to during the most wonderful time of the year? Remember that you deal with difficult problems and relationships all year long. Sure it’s amplified with situations around the holidays, but you’ve got this.

Your Family Is Your Family

You don’t have to tell your mother-in-law this, but you can know it for yourself. This is not the same world in which your mother-in-law raised children. I’m not saying that to devalue her parenting. There is a lot we can learn from past generations of parenting. Maybe she was a super-star mother. However today, more families have both partners working outside the home. Kids are exposed to more technology. And the way people do life and relationship is just different on many levels. Get on the same page with your partner. You know why you make the choices you do in your marriage. It’s very common that mothers treat their adult children like young children. So be a team. Be confident in that and don’t let those comments from your mother-in-law hurt your feelings.

Know Where to Draw the Line With Your Mother-in-Law

It is OK to not include your in-laws in every holiday activity. Allow some special traditions for just your immediate family. Can you think of things you enjoyed as a child with your mother or family? Those are fun to pass on with your own family. Maybe decorating gingerbread houses or going on a fun Christmas lights tour with hot chocolate is something you want to bring to your own kids as a special memory with their parents(you). Know those moments are for you, let your partner know the expectation that those moments are protected. It is OK to tell someone, “I think this evening is just going to be us. We will see you soon.”

Know Where to Let Your Mother-in-Law In

While boundaries and special moments are important, it is just as important for your kids to have memories and relationships with their extended family. Sometimes embracing a little relationship dysfunction can have its benefits and lessen conflict. It’s a way to show your partner, and your kids, that your hangups are something you can learn to manage on your own and not pass on to others. Don’t let your mother-in-law become a mythical monster-in-law. Also, remember that one day you will have grandchildren, and maybe a daughter-in-law hosting you for the holidays. You’re going to be the best mother-in-law ever and rid the world of in-law issues, right?

Make Time for Yourself

The holidays are a perfect time to ask for an afternoon, maybe even a whole day, to yourself to decompress from the overbearing swirl of family togetherness. Everyone needs to allow themselves some mental space and self-compassion. Plus, knowing you have this special time on the horizon could make the intense family togetherness a little more tolerable. You might find yourself on better behavior all around. The trick is: plan it ahead. Don’t demand it from your husband in the heat of anxiety. Your experience will be so much better if it is well planned. Trust me!

Make Time for Your Marriage


Start a tradition in your relationship with your partner. Continuing to connect with your husband during the holidays, especially if there is tension with in-laws and family, will help you stay in the mindset for which you are aiming. Have a special night out or time alone. Maybe your mother-in-law will babysit! Let her enjoy some grandma time. You won’t regret making this a priority and allowing yourself to slow down a bit during this season.

Tip: It might also be nice to check in with him about how he feels about your own mother. Remember, he has a mother-in-law too. It might help you see your role as a daughter-in-law differently as well. The more we gain perspective, the less quickly we criticize.

Press on, friend! 2020 is around the corner. It is easy to fall into the pattern of stress and tension during the holidays. Take a moment and realize all that you have to be grateful for. You kids, your marriage, maybe even your mother-in-law! Happy Holidays to you and your family!

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