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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT