Skip to main content

7 tips for tolerating family at holidays

By Joshua Coleman, Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan
updated 7:31 AM EST, Tue December 24, 2013
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
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT