Skip to main content

7 tips for tolerating family at holidays

By Joshua Coleman, Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan
December 24, 2013 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Parents and children often worry holiday visits will revive old hurts
  • They say parents now have to work to earn kids' lov,e and that is confusing
  • They offer tips: Kids, express gently your need to set limits; address past with empathy
  • Writers: Parents, if your children are critical, try to acknowledge their point of view

Editor's note: Joshua Coleman is co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families and a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. His most recent book is "When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along" (HarperCollins). Philip A. Cowan is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. Carolyn Pape Cowan is adjunct professor of psychology emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. They are the authors of "When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples."

(CNN) -- "There is no contradiction between loving someone and feeling burdened by that person; indeed, love tends to magnify the burden." -- Andrew Solomon, "Far From the Tree"

+++

Despite feel-good messages from television, billboards and online ads, holidays are a source of conflict for millions of people. It's not uncommon to see a friend discuss an upcoming family visit with eye-rolling or deep sighs.

Families are complicated. Our feelings toward individual members can change from boredom to affection to outrage in a matter of minutes.

Many adult children dread the prospect of seeing their parents at the holidays. There may be unresolved feelings from their childhoods, and even a close relationship with a parent might become strained by the parent's divorce or remarriage, infirmity or neediness. A parent's direct or indirect disapproval of the adult child's sexuality, choice of partner, parenting practices or job choices can also bring tension for the adult child.

Joshua Coleman
Joshua Coleman
Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip cowan
Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip cowan

But it's not just the younger generation dreading the holiday encounter. Parents, too, might greet children's upcoming visit with trepidation.

They may be disappointed with the child's lifestyle or achievements or dislike the person their child married. They may feel hurt that the child doesn't stay in touch and believe that for all their years of sacrifice and support, they deserve more than an occasional phone call.

Some of these tensions stem from changes in parenting over the past century. In the 1920s, parents wanted their children to obey authority and fit in. Parents were to be respected, if not feared.

As families became more democratic, children were allowed a greater say over family activities and parents took a more direct interest in children's thoughts, feelings and inhibitions.

It used to be that children were expected behave in ways that would earn their parents' love. Now, parents have to work hard to earn the love of their children.

This inversion of power and authority has created confusion for some families. Those who invested far more love, awareness and money into their children's development than their parents invested in them expect a kind of intimacy and availability that many children are not comfortable returning. Children who've been carefully shepherded into adulthood might also need more distance from the parents to feel grown up.

In short, the risks for conflict between adult children and their parents can be high during holiday visits. To preserve holiday closeness, or at least to reduce tension, we offer some guidelines for both generations:

Man's late wife makes Christmas wish
QMB's '12 Days of Economic Christmas'
10,000 carolers respond to girl's wish

To the adult child:

-- If you have a complaint or are trying to negotiate a different level of involvement, try saying that to your parents in an affectionate way, with a tone free of tension and urgency.

You have far more power to hurt them than you may realize. Rather than, "You're so needy all the time. It's always about you," say, "I know you're upset that I'm not as available as you want me to be. My goal isn't to make you feel bad."

Or "I know you weren't trying to make me feel (fill in the blank: "neglected, unimportant, hurt ...") when I was growing up, but that is how I felt/feel. I'm not saying this to shame you, just to help you understand."

If they respond by saying, "Wow, that makes me feel like a complete failure as a parent," try to have empathy for how that might feel.

You could say, "I'm so sorry. I don't raise these issues to hurt you or humiliate you. More to try to have a better relationship with you."

It may also be useful to mention the things that they did right.

-- If you need to say no to a parent's request, try to do so calmly, without anger or resentment: "I wish we could stay longer too, but a shorter visit is better for us right now."

-- Focus on the idea that your parents did the best they could with the resources -- both internal and external -- they had and the standards at the time.

-- If staying at the family home creates too much tension, stay nearby so you can pace your visit and minimize the strain: "I know you prefer to have us all at the house, but I think it's just easier if we have our own place at the hotel. But we appreciate the offer to stay with you."

To the parent:

-- Try to listen to what your adult child has to say about your relationship. If your son or daughter sounds critical of your parenting, try to find the kernel of truth. Avoid getting into the right and wrong or defending past actions.

Yes, you did the best you could, but avoid saying that because it sounds defensive. Better to acknowledge your mistakes directly: "Yes, I wish I had been more (patient, available, sensitive, loving) too. I can see how what I did felt bad to you."

-- Honor the principle of separate realities in families. People can grow up in the same household and emerge with very different memories and experiences of what happened: "I thought you needed that approach from me growing up, but I clearly got that wrong. I'm sorry I let you down in that way."

-- Try to see your adult child's complaints or wishes as an opportunity for a new relationship rather than a referendum on your parenting.

Say something like, "I appreciate your telling me what's been bothering you. That was probably hard to do and took some courage. Let me know what would feel better to you as we move on in our relationship."

Whether you're the parent or child, it's important to realize that we're not so perfect. Parents who want a closer relationship with their adult children should be open to understanding what they may have gotten wrong in the distant or even recent past, however painful it is to hear or acknowledge. And adult children should consider having compassion for a parent who may not have known a better way to parent, given their own past or the standards for parents at the time.

Making each other feel appreciated for what we get right, and not so hurt or humiliated by what we get wrong, is not only good advice for any holiday, it's good advice for any family.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT