Inter-Generational Holiday Celebrations: A Guide For Adult Children and Their Parents

Staff Therapist Susan Neumann Gordon, LSW, MBA, has extensive experience with individuals, couples and families in life transitions, relationships between parents and adult children, and couples’ conflict resolution and communication skills. 

During the season of joy and light, we may have high hopes for family togetherness and harmony. Yet, when generations of family convene, there may be ghosts of holidays past that trigger the anticipation of conflict, which can sadly crowd out our wishes for a happy holiday.

An article entitled “Measuring Holiday Stress” in last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer talks about the development of new software to measure physical markers of stress. They found that during holidays, finances, gift giving and difficult family members contribute to higher levels of stress.

The relationship between adult children and their parents can be a particularly vulnerable dynamic. It can also be difficult when an adult child brings a new partner or blended family to the table.

Examining interpersonal family dynamics that get in the way of harmony and addressing them in advance can help to mitigate the way family members react to current situations that may trigger old experiences.

Here are a few tips for parents and adult children who bring new family members into the celebrations:

Get to know your partner or spouse and establish boundaries

When individuals form a new family, they bring pieces of their family of origin with them. Often those ‘ways of doing things’ are implicit and differences do not surface until there is a catalyst, like a holiday. Some differences are mundane like whether to install toilet paper going over or under. However, when it comes to holidays and traditions, the stakes are higher. For families merging cultures, faiths, family structures and expectations, the diversity may create additional stressors.

Before a new family can identify its boundaries, there needs to be a dialogue to learn about each other’s experiences and expectations. There is no correct “recipe” for celebrating. So, try approaching the topic with curiosity rather than judgment. You might ask:

  • What has this holiday been like for you in your family?
  • What is most important part to you? What would you want to do differently?
  • When, what and how does your family celebrate?
  • Who hosts the gathering, who gets invited? and who does not?
  • What kind of gift giving is appropriate?
  • What foods do you associate with the holiday?

By understanding what is important, new families can begin to draft a framework for successful celebrations. This is where communications and conflict resolution skills become important

Where do you see agreement with you partner and what needs negotiation? Coming to an understanding of what you would like to have happen, supports the new family and minimizes the chances of being pulled into a power struggle between past and present.


Boundaries, Enmeshment and Differentiation

A new family should identify and articulate its boundaries; recognizing where the parents end and the adult children begin.  Boundaries enable a safe, respectful relationship that tolerates difference. As a general rule, parents’ suggestions and input about the lives of younger generation may feel like a vote of “no confidence” and lead to defensiveness and conflict. When far flung family members see one another after a period of time, holiday get-togethers can be an opportunity to say and do things (with or without the benefit of alcohol) that would be better saved for another time, or possibly never.

There may be pressure from families on both sides to celebrate with them in their way. In an enmeshed family, boundaries are unclear. Family members are over-involved in each other’s emotional and psychological lives and can become excessively reactive to another’s emotions. Differentiation means taking control and responsibility for one’s own emotions, beliefs, and decisions. The objective is to preserve the individuality of the “self “ and the “new family” while still allowing for the dignity and power of the parents.

For adult children, differentiation means giving up the narrative of hierarchical helplessness in the face of the “all-powerful”parents. The goal is not to change parents but to change the relationship. Many adult children assume that they must either do things their parents’ way or distance from them. An optimal level of engagement is not a power struggle or a zero sum game. It allows for more open interaction while protecting respectful individuality. A dialogue with a sincere desire to understand and express empathy can promote tolerance and help support a happy holiday season.


From the Vantage Point of Parents of Adult Children

A family’s journey through the life cycles requires flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances. There are expectations tied to each stage. Parents whose expectation of their adult children are not met (i.e. children’s career, partner, values and lifestyle choices) may exhibit anger, masking feeling of shame, loneliness, fear, sadness, or hurt. Parents may feel rejected and abandoned; like failures in the most important role of their lives, parenthood.

For parents to adjust their expectations at a time of family get-together may prevent painful disappointments. Communicating with adult children before the holiday may clarify what you can expect and enable you to plan and regulate reactions to mitigate unnecessary conflict. The discussion about differentiation, enmeshment and boundaries is equally true for parents. The inclination to over-accommodate adult children can lead to resentment. The inclination to be rigid in the face of diversity, i.e. “It’s my house, it’s my way,” can lead to “It’s my loss.”

Tools for Staying Calm and Enhancing Holiday Connection

  • Anticipate possible triggers that may put a damper on your holiday celebration. Prepare for them by engaging in dialogue ahead of time (with family member or with yourself.)
  • Fortify your capacity for flexibility and empathy.
  • Create a more positive narrative to recognize that what you heard might not have been what the speaker intended.
  • Practice mindfulness- the free app Headspace offers 10-minute simple mindfulness exercises. Start now and stick with it by creating a habit.

As we approach holidays with family, it is important to consider in advance what messages, legacies, roles, values and memories we want to pass on to the next generation. Deal with them consciously and deliberately rather than allowing them to have an impact indirectly and insidiously. You are sculpting the next generation’s family of origin. Use holiday celebrations as an opportunity to create a priceless masterpiece.

Susan Neumann Gordon, LSW, MBA, has extensive experience with individuals, couples and families in life transitions, relationships between parents and adult children, and couples’ conflict resolution and communication skills. She practices out of our Wynnewood and Bryn Mawr locations. Request an appointment today