Very few parents envision a future in which their adult kids don’t come home for the holidays. In fact, most of us picture a future in which we are surrounded by a loving, happy family of our kids and their kids, multiple generations joyously spending time together on special occasions.
But the fact is that many adult children dread coming come for the holidays. If you search on Google, you’ll find lots of advice to help adult children avoid coming home for the holidays. You’ll also find pages of advice for tolerating difficult family gatherings and how to get through family gatherings without losing it.
The truth about family holidays
The sad truth is that Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, and even birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are often stressful family events that adult kids want to avoid spending with parents. You may have noticed that your adult kids are joining you for holidays less frequently. Or you may notice that your adult children seem stressed and unhappy during holiday gatherings.
The first thing to know is that this is more normal that we have been led to believe. The vision of family togetherness that we see in the media rarely reflects the complexity of our own families. Parenting adult children is entirely different from parenting young children, and it can be challenging for parents and adult kids to make the transition.
The next thing to know is that you can make changes in your own behavior that will make your adult child feel more comfortable about sharing holidays with you. This will make them more likely to come home and more likely to enjoy themselves while there.
10 reasons adult kids don’t come home for the holidays:
- Pressure to conform to previous versions of themselves
- Different political and religious viewpoints
- Criticism and judgement of their lifestyle choices (e.g. where they live and how they live)
- Criticism about their job/career choices
- Dislike of chosen life partner or criticism due to the lack of a life partner
- Criticism and judgement of their appearance (e.g. weight, tattoos, hairstyle, clothing, etc.)
- Sexual orientation and/or gender identity is not respected or is expected to stay “in the closet”
- Visits home tend to lead to relapses into addictive behaviors for which they are in recovery (e.g. eating disorders, substance abuse, self-harm compulsive shopping, etc.)
- Being with family triggers a depressive episode and even suicidal thoughts
- Family members engage in addictive behaviors that the adult child is in recovery for (e.g. smoking, drinking, substance use, dieting, disordered eating, etc.)
What parents can do to make the holidays easier for adult children
Parents can definitely make holidays more joyful for everyone if they recognize some key changes that are within their power to make. Remember that we can’t force other people to change – we only have control over our own behavior.
As much as we want our family to be close and loving, we cannot force that situation through cajoling, criticizing, or making our children feel guilty enough that they show up even when they don’t want to. We can only create the conditions that will make family holidays less stressful for our adult children and, over time, help them feel truly welcome and loved during family holiday events.
1. Acknowledge your role in the relationship
Something strange happens to a lot of parents when their children become teenagers. Many parents begin to feel as if they are victims of their children. They feel as if the teen’s wild mood swings and impulsive behavior is designed specifically to aggravate the parent.
This leads many, many parents to swing between feeling enraged by their teen’s developing adulthood and a sense of despair. Behaviorally, most parents alternate trying to control their teen’s actions with feeling victimized by their teenager.
Adolescence is hard on both kids and parents. But lots of parents get stuck in a cycle of trying to control and feeling victimized long after their kids have become full-blown adults. You can neither control your adult child nor are you a victim of your adult child. You are their parent, and they need to you learn some new skills to make this transition.
If you have noticed that your adult child does not want to come home for the holidays, that means there is something wrong with your relationship. Not because you were a bad parent or because your child is a bad kid. Just because as life progresses, parents and children must continually adjust into their relationship and discover each other at new life stages.
If you want to have a lifelong relationship with your child. If you want something beyond an obligatory and stressful holiday once per year. It’s time for you to make some changes in how you parent. This is your challenge and your opportunity.
2. Recognize your child as a grown-up
You have known your child through so many growth stages. It’s understandable if you have trapped them in your mind at a younger age when they were easier and more fun to parent. Most parents cherished the years before 10 years old, when they could play ball or go to the park together. Alternatively, most parents struggled with the teen years, when they felt irritated by and even hateful towards their child.
But your child is now a grown-up. This is actually the longest period of their life with you. We think in terms of parenting as the first 18 years, but many parent-child relationships extend for more than 50 years.
Don’t let your child’s first 18 years define the rest of the time you have together. You are still and will always be their parent. You are still and will always be the single most important figure in their lives. Even if they say they don’t need you anymore, we all remain our parents’ children in our hearts forever.
Allow your child to be the age they are. Then remember how you felt at that age. Remember how grown up you felt at 20, 30, and 40. Likely your life looked different from your adult child’s, but that’s how life is. You have a child, not a clone. Celebrate them as they are, and allow them to grow up, decade after decade, gracefully or ungracefully, with the knowledge that they are loved and accepted unconditionally.
3. Remember that they have an adult life and real conflicts
Sometimes adult children use their adult lives as an excuse for why they don’t come home for the holidays. As a parent, you should try to understand how many of their excuses are because of your relationship and how many of them are because of genuine conflicts.
Adult children are typically in the heat of life right when their parents want to see them (and the grandkids!) more often. For example, they may be working a stressful job, trying to keep on top of bills, juggling childcare commitments, parenting, staying in a committed relationship, and coordinating with in-laws, ex-partners, dog-sitters, and more.
Often when an adult child doesn’t come home for the holidays there is a really good reason why it’s too hard or just won’t work this year. Remember in these situations that it’s OK to have holidays on non-holiday dates. For example, Christmas can be any date in December or January (or even July!). The less rigid you are about the date, location, and time, the more likely you are to get your kid to celebrate with you.
If, however, you’re fairly sure that your child is making up excuses because they don’t actually want to see you, then forget about the holiday. Focus instead on rebuilding the relationship and start working towards a different outcome next year.
I know this can seem hard, but pushing for a holiday gathering when your child is angry with you is unlikely to result in a positive, joyful event. It’s more likely to end in tears and anger. Invest time in rebuilding your relationship and understanding why holidays with you are stressful. Then work towards creating conditions that work for your adult child so that next year you have a greater chance of celebrating together.
4. Get to know who your adult child is right now
It’s all too easy for parents and children to slip into a habit of not talking about current interests and passions. It’s much easier to keep the relationship superficial, since it takes less effort to say you’re “fine” rather than talk about your best friend’s hip replacement.
Likewise, it’s easier for your adult child to say work is “fine” rather than tell you that they are really concerned about recent downsizing efforts and that they actually wish they had gone into a different career. The result of superficial “fine” conversations is that neither person in the relationship feels seen or heard.
Love is almost entirely based on feeling seen and heard.
The key to getting to know who your adult child really is right now is to not react negatively or dramatically to information that surprises or upsets you. Adult children have powerful antennae and can sense parental judgement, criticism, and fear in an instant. They may even intentionally bait you to get a negative response. It may seem weird, but it happens.
Coach yourself on being an active listener who does not over- or under-react to your child’s statements. This is a practice that takes time, but it is a huge and worthwhile investment in your relationship.
Adult children can all too easily slip into a pattern with their parents in which they don’t feel seen, known or loved, even when the parents want to see, know, and love them. This is something that most parents need to learn. Take your time, and keep trying. It’s worth it.
5. Understand their recovery process if they’re in one
Does your adult child have a history of eating disorder, substance abuse, self-harm, depression, anxiety, and any other mental health condition and/or behavioral addiction? If so, you need to be conscious of their recovery process and how it is impacted by family gatherings.
If your child is in the active stages of recovery, which varies but can easily continue for five years or more of abstinence/remission, then you need to monitor the environment carefully and consider whether you need to remove any triggers. Your child’s recovery should be a priority for you and every member of the family. If you can facilitate a safe environment for your adult child’s recovery, they are more likely to continue coming back.
If you’re wondering what makes a safe environment for your child’s recovery, then ask them! Don’t stand on ceremony or pretend that your child doesn’t have any problems. They do. If they are in recovery, they have to watch out for triggers. They may not be able to tell you exactly what you need to do, but that’s OK. Just ask, and then do some research on your own. Talk to your family in advance to try and explain any necessary adjustments to accommodate recovery. Any step is a positive step.
Most people in recovery spend significant time before seeing family members preparing themselves for anticipated triggers.
If your adult child has been in recovery for years or even decades, don’t assume it’s as if the situation never occurred. Most of us who are in recovery will spend our lives learning more about why we encountered struggles, and many of us will experience relapses of anxiety, depression, and our disorders. This doesn’t make us failures, it just makes us perfectly normal. For various reasons, our families can be a source of great stress. The more you can do to help us avoid triggering environments at the holidays, the better.
6. Accept your adult child’s life choices without question
Parents want what’s best for their children. That’s a given. But many of us lose our way as our children grow up. We start to think that our kids’ life choices are a reflection of us as parents. While we certainly have a huge influence over our children, their choices as adults are theirs to own. We can support them and accept them, but we cannot control their choices or take too much credit – either good or bad.
Adult kids who don’t come home for the holidays frequently worry that they haven’t lived up to their parents’ expectations. This is often because parents have explicitly or implicitly let their kids know that they are a disappointment. Many parents criticize their children, both when they’re little and as adults. Many parents also compare children, creating a toxic state of competition. This often comes from a place of wanting your kids to succeed, but beware: it’s the most common reason adult children give for staying away from parents.
What adult children want from their parents is the same as what little children want from their parents. They want to be accepted. You may think there’s no way you can accept your adult child. Maybe they are addicted to drugs or a single parent or a bad driver. Maybe they are too thin or too fat. Perhaps they don’t go to church or do go to church or voted for a candidate you think is the devil. But here’s the thing:
acceptance is not the same as approval.
You are allowed to accept your child fully for who they are and still not approve of all their choices. The difference is subtle but critical.
It has been said that acceptance is so closely tied to love that it is indistinguishable. If all you are able to do to show love to your child is accept them, that is enough. Parents who accept their children love their children.
Parents who do not accept their children … well, they often have adult kids who do not come home for the holidays. Your adult child – whether they are 25 or 55 – wants to be accepted by you. They want to feel that no matter what they do, you still love them.
Getting adult kids home for the holidays
If you want to see your adult kid this holiday season, keep the above points in mind. Remember that your child has a choice whether or not to see you. Many adult kids don’t come home for the holidays.
This can feel really terrifying, but you have the power to improve your relationship with your child and move towards repair and joy. Even families that have been estranged for years can reunite, but it usually requires the parent to make some important changes like the ones listed above.
I hope you have a wonderful, loving holiday, and that you get to see and enjoy your adult child for many years to come!
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.