Communication Is Key to Holiday Sanity

AMES, Iowa — Children benefit from relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles and other extended family members. These relatives express love in many ways, including gift giving, which some parents say can be excessive and difficult to manage. Finding ways to set limits and preserve relationships can be accomplished with clear, respectful, assertive communication skills, says Kristi Cooper, a family life specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.  

“Assertive communication can work wonders in channeling well-meaning generosity for your child’s benefit,” Cooper said. But assertive communication does not mean placing blame.

“If you say to Grandma and Grandpa, ‘You are always giving the children junk,’ chances are they will become defensive. Then it will be even harder to solve problems or to preserve the relationship,” Cooper said.

“Rather than blame the grandparents, own your feelings and say, ‘I am concerned that the children have too many toys.’ This is an ‘I message,’ which allows you to claim your own perspective without blaming someone else,” Cooper said.

“When you start with your own feelings, then you can say to grandma and grandpa, ‘I would like to talk to you about something that is very important to me. I value our relationship and appreciate your generosity towards my children. I am concerned that the children have too many toys. I need your help to find ways to manage the amount of things my kids receive.’”

It’s also important to stay calm, Cooper continued. Tone of voice, body language and choice of words all can impact the outcome of a conversation.  

“So take a deep breath to calm your body and collect your thoughts. Then try these four steps for better communication,” she said.

Step 1. Alignment: “As a parent, put yourself in the grandparents’ shoes and see the situation from their perspective. Say something like, ‘I can see how fun it is for you to see joy in your grandchildren’s eyes,’” Cooper said.

Step 2. Agree: “Find common ground,” Cooper said. “You could say, ‘I agree that we both love the children deeply and want the best for them.’”

Step 3. Redirect: “Then move the conversation forward,” Cooper continued. “You could say, ‘I value our relationship and want to work this out together. Let’s find a time before the next holiday to talk about this.’”

Step 4. Resolve: “Begin looking for a solution with an action step,” she said. "Talk together and make a list of gift ideas that feel right for the grandparents and for you. Together you can find something that will strengthen their bond with your children and be manageable for your family.”

These four steps may smooth the way for some great problem solving, Cooper said. She provides additional tips for communicating with relatives during the holidays at under “Creative Gift Ideas,” or specifically at

The “Reclaim Your Holidays” initiative is a program of the University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy and Environmental Education in partnership with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. It is funded with support from the Resource Enhancement and Protection Conservation Education Program and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Solid Waste Alternatives Program.

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