Rules of Engagement: When Adult Children Come Home for the Holidays

For many of us holidays have a sort of sacred meaning with familiar traditions and family togetherness across generations. And then everything changes. Parents and grandparents die. Kids grow up, leave home and bring new people to the table.

How can we adapt to change, minimize stress and maximize joy?

Here are some suggested “rules of engagement”:

1. Keep a sharp eye out for the positives

Adult children, regardless of age, seek validation and approval.

Look for opportunities to offer sincere compliments.

You think:  How could he put that dress on my granddaughter?
You say: How flattering that color is on her.

You think: She is ignoring us rushing around doing “who- knows- what”. It’s so rude. If we leave, she won’t even notice.
You say: Do you need/want some help? I can entertain the children or give you space and come back in an hour – whatever you need.

Parents want to be appreciated and valued.

You think: Mom and dad’s house is so cluttered with books. It’s ridiculous. Can’t they just use electronic resources and join the 21st century?
You say: You must be proud of your library! What new books are you reading?

You think: Ugh! Mom’s cooking hasn’t gotten any better with time. Let’s tell her to order out.
You say: We so much appreciate the effort you put into preparing this meal. Thank you.

2. Respect boundaries

Healthy adult parent-child relationships require differentiation, the development of a separate and unique self. Family reunions can present a powerful temptation for mutual regression. Parents may still see a sixteen-year-old  in the 40-year-old son and respond accordingly. The adult child comes home and may act like a teenager.

Watch out for old patterns. If you notice them, you can change them. Do something different.  Try to assume that what is said or done comes from a caring place or just habit. It’s harder to keep the toxic dynamic going if one person changes the script.

Mom tells her son “Your hair is too long!” While the 16 year old would explode with indignation, the adult might respond with “I appreciate that you still care how I look.”

An adult daughter comments on an “unwise” decision parents made.  She reminds them of the judgmental teenager she used to be. While it may feel disrespectful, the comment may be an expression of concern. Respond accordingly.

3. Empathy and understanding 

Adult children and parents have a shared history of joy as well as hurts and disappointments. Some painful memories may feel very present. If unfinished business needs to be addressed find a time when all parties can focus and not in a way that disrupts the family celebration.

Try addressing issues from a perspective of curiosity rather than blame, e.g. how did this rift come to be? How does your memory of what happened differ from mine? What can we do now?

Holidays are an opportunity for us to create warm memories and begin to reshape our personal narrative. Use the season well. Remember, the next generation is watching.