Avoiding Holiday Stress Between Parents and Young Adult Children

By Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT
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Holidays can be stressful when parents and their young adult children get together after living apart from one another. But with some pre-planning and intentional conversations, time together can be enjoyable and make great family memories for the future.

Does this sound familiar? Tonya’s 20 something daughter calls home to say, “Hey Mom, I think I’m coming home for Christmas. I’m looking forward to spending some time with you and Dad and hanging out with my friends.” Tonya is so excited and her mind quickly drifts from the request to the planning. She has a lot to do. There are meals to plan, rooms to prepare and gifts to buy. Tonya realizes she will have to rearrange her schedule in order to get everything done; however, the idea of spending quality time with her daughter makes it all worth it. Tonya daydreams about all of the great ways she and her daughter will pass the holiday time they’ll have together.

On the other side of the phone line, Tonya’s daughter is thinking of all of the plans she made before she called home. She chatted with numerous friends, made plans for every day of her holiday vacation and figures she’ll sit at her family’s Christmas table for about 30 minutes before she rushes off to join friends for chocolate fondue, cappuccinos and an afternoon of binge watching their favorite tv series. She has already packed her backpack and sleeping bag because her former youth group members are going to hang out with their youth pastor for a few days in his cozy little cabin in the mountains. After that, she plans to head home so her mom can wash her clothes before she goes back to college. Sounds fun and completely reasonable, right?

Well, yes and no. If you are Tonya’s daughter, she values her family but she is still trying to find her way in life and making connections with friends is essential. She is trying to figure out what she wants to do, where she wants to be and how she wants to live during the next part of her life. All of this is good and normal.

However, Tonya doesn’t feel good at all; she is disappointed. After all, the family traditions had been a favorite part of everyone’s life for a long time. Why wouldn’t Tonya’s daughter want to be a part of them? And why wouldn’t Tonya’s daughter want to spend most of her time with Tonya and her husband? They’ve known her so much longer than her friends and they have so many memories, so much history together.

The truth is that most holiday stress that occurs between parents and young adult children is due to a lack of communication regarding three areas:

  1. Time management
    Things can get tricky, as seen in the previous example. The solution is to talk with one another long before the holiday visit about expectations for how time will be spent. Plans should be made with mutual respect for one another’s schedules and preferences. In general, parents need to recognize the importance of keeping connections with friends for their young adult children and resist the tendency to equate time with value. If young adult children spend more time with friends than with parents during a holiday visit, it doesn’t mean that relationships with friends are more valued than those with parents. It simply means that at this time in life, young adults may have more in common with their friends in regard to the things they like to do to occupy their time. At the same time, young adults need to understand that their parents are focused on long term relationships with them and that the friendships of today may fade quickly while those parent-child relationships are likely to last a lifetime. Therefore, time spent with parents during the holidays provides an opportunity for young adults to recognize and express gratitude for memories past, and time to make new memories.
  2. Boundaries
    A lot of holiday stress between parents and their young adult children is related to boundaries around personal and public space and when that space is available for use. As parents and kids stop living together, they begin to redefine how much time and space they need between themselves and others and most feel comfortable with a little more of both. Therefore, when they come back together, they need to talk about:

    • how much time they would like to have alone and uninterrupted
    • which parts of the house are “open to the public,” which ones are reserved only for family members and which parts are to be reserved for privacy
    • when parts of the house are available or not available for use

    Simply discussing those boundaries and taking some simple steps such as making “Do not disturb” signs for doors can be very helpful.

  3. Finances
    It’s not unusual for young adults and their parents to have different levels of income and differing views about how money should be spent. Since so many activities – gift giving, travel and special events – require money during the holidays, conflicts often arise over how money is spent. Therefore, it is helpful to talk about preferences for spending amounts and reasons prior to purchasing items so feelings won’t be hurt. For example, parents and young adults may agree to a maximum spending limit for gifts or decide to provide hand-made gifts for a reasonable cost for supplies. Beyond gifts, both parties need to agree on who will pay for what when it comes to event tickets, travel expenses, food and other holiday items that cost money.

For Tonya and all parents facing this new season in life, it is important to acknowledge the feelings of loss regarding the changes that occur when young adult children leave home. With careful planning and open communication prior to a return home for the holidays, however, both parties can use their time, space and money wisely and truly enjoy the time they have together.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Focus on the Family.

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About the Author

Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT

As the current Director of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family, Joannie DeBrito draws from over 30 years of diverse experience as a parent educator, family life educator, school social worker, administrator and licensed mental health professional.

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