Holiday Stress Between Parents and Young Adults

By Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT
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Holiday stress between parents and young adult children may occur when both parties have different expectations about the holidays. But that stress can be relieved.

Mom's Perspective

Does this sound familiar? Tonya’s college daughter, Alisha, calls home to say, “Hey Mom, I’m coming home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m looking forward to spending some time with you and Dad and hanging out with my friends.” Tonya is really 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 Alisha makes it all worth it. Tonya daydreams about the great ways she and Alisha will pass the holiday time they’ll have together. She’s unprepared for the holiday stress that often occurs between parents and young adults when they return home.

Daughter's Perspective

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 and made plans for every day of her holiday vacations. She figures she’ll sit at her family’s Thanksgiving table for about 30 minutes. Then she’ll rush off to join friends for chocolate fondue, cappuccinos and an afternoon of watching movies. She has already planned a Christmas getaway with her former youth group members. Just after Christmas gifts are opened, she and her friends will retreat to her youth pastor’s cozy little cabin for a few days. 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 if you’re Alisha and no if you’re Tonya. It looks as if the two of them are going to need to work together to resolve their differences. 

Holiday Stress: Differences Explained

Alisha values her family but she is still trying to find her way in life. Making connections with friends is essential. She is trying to figure out what she wants to do and where she wants to be. Alisha is questioning how she wants to live during the next part of her life. All of this is good and normal.

Tonya doesn’t feel good at all; she is disappointed. After all, the family traditions have been a favorite part of everyone’s life for a long time. Why wouldn’t Alisha want to be a part of them? And why wouldn’t Alisha 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. 

These differences in perspectives cause conflict between Tonya and Alisha. But they may need to find a way to celebrate the holidays with less stress.

Work Together to Resolve Time Management

The truth is that parents and young adults can work together to resolve holiday stress. This typically begins with time management. Things can get tricky, as seen in the previous example. The solution is to talk with one another before holidays about expectations for how time will be spent. Plans should be made with mutual respect for one another’s schedules and preferences. Parents need to recognize how important it is to their young adult kids to maintain relationships with their friends. They’d be wise to resist the tendency to equate time with value. Young adults may spend more time with friends than with parents during a holiday visit. However, that doesn’t mean that relationships with friends are more valued than those with parents. Young adults may simply have more in common with their friends.  They share similar ideas about how to occupy their time. At the same time, young adults need to understand their parents are focused on long term relationships with them. 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 opportunities for young adults to remember family traditions. They may also want to express gratitude for memories past and make some new memories.

Work Together to Define Boundaries

A lot of holiday stress between parents and their young adult children is related to boundaries. As parents and kids stop living together, they begin to redefine how much time and space they need. Most feel comfortable with a little more private space and increased space between themselves and others.Therefore, when they come back together, they need to discuss these questions:

  • How much time would we like to have alone and uninterrupted?
  • Which parts of the house will we have “open to the public”?
  • Are there parts of our home reserved only for family members?
  • Which parts are to be reserved for our privacy?
  • When are parts of our house available or not available for use?

 It is helpful for parents and young adults to work together to resolve boundary issues. Some simple steps such as making “Do not disturb” signs for doors can be very helpful.

Work Together to Resolve Money Issues

Holiday stress between parents and young adults may also relate to finances. Both parties likely have different levels of income and differing views about how money should be spent. Therefore, parents and young adults need to work together to resolve issues related to holiday spending.  For example, both parties may agree to a maximum spending limit for gifts. Or, they may 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 in regard to other expenses. Those may include event tickets, travel expenses, food and other holiday items that cost money.

Holiday Stress: Acknowledge That Change is Hard

For Tonya and all parents facing this new season in life, it is important to acknowledge the feelings of loss. The changes that occur when young adult children leave home can feel painful. That pain can return when young adults come home for holidays and don’t engage much with their parents. However,  relief will come if they work together to resolve time, boundary and money issues.  Then, they will both enjoy the time they have together and make good memories for the future. 

7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment

Good parents aren’t perfect. There’s no formula to follow, but there are ways you can grow every day. Focus on the Family’s 7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment gives parents an honest look at their unique strengths, plus some areas that could use a little help.

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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