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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"

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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:

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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.

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

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