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.
Of course adult kids are meant to build their own adult lives and their own family traditions. So sometimes not coming home for the holidays, while hard, feels absolutely right and natural. You understand what’s going on and it doesn’t feel like they’re rejecting you or seeing you only out of obligation. You’re emotionally close and when you see each other it’s mutually gratifying. On the other hand, if you feel as if they are avoiding you or dislike coming home for the holidays, that is a different situation.
Sadly, 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. This is so sad for so many parents, and I’m sorry if this is happening with your adult child(ren).
I assume that if you’re reading this article, you’re looking to understand why this happens and what you can do to change things. And please understand that while some things may be hard to read, there’s no blame intended in this article. The fact is that when we want to improve a relationship we can only take responsibility for our role within it. We cannot change the other person, only ourselves. This article is about seeing your responsibility and choosing whether you would like to change your own steps in the relational dance to effect positive change.
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 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 anxiety, depression 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. If our adult kids don’t come home for the holidays, it may help to make some changes in how we behave.
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
It’s important to recognize that while your children are adults now, you held tremendous power over them in the formative years of their lives. Recognizing the power dynamics – mainly that you held all the power for many years – is important as you move into an adult relationship with your child. Acknowledging your impact on your child’s development is not about being blamed for who they are as adults. But it is important to see that old power dynamics play a big role in your relationship with an adult child.
If you used punishment, particularly physical punishment, that was a way you had power over your child. Major family disruptions like divorce, moving, or major illness were also situations in which your child was both impacted and powerless. If these things happened in your family, you may consider talking to your adult child and taking responsibility for how your choices impacted them.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you had a true “choice” or did the wrong thing. It just means you acknowledge that what you did impacted your child. If you think your child is looking for an apology for times when they were powerless, give it to them nondefensively. You are not taking the blame (unless it’s warranted). You are taking responsibility as an adult who had the power to change a child’s life.
It’s worth reflecting on your child’s life and considering whether you need to talk about things that happened in the past. Not because you were a bad parent or because your child is stuck in the past. Just because as life progresses, parents, who held the power for so long, often need to revisit old dynamics and address them compassionately and intentionally.
I know this can feel unfair and different from what you got from your own parents. But if you want to have a lifelong relationship with your child. If you want something beyond an obligatory and stressful holiday once per year. This is how you can do it. 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. Most parents cherished the years before 10 years old, when they could play ball or go to the park together. And of course, many parents struggled with the teen years, when they felt irritated and confused by their child’s awkward and tumultuous quest for independence.
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. Be curious about who they are today rather than holding onto a previous version of them.
And definitely don’t hold onto the fantasy version of the adults they would become that you understandably nurtured and cherished as all parents do. 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 courage to say you’re “fine” rather than talk about the lack of closeness in your relationship.
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.
Most parents are great cheerleaders when things are going well. But how are you when it comes to darkness and difficulty? Having a deep, meaningful relationship with someone means being able to see their darkness, their frustration and anger, without being afraid. It means seeing their whole self – flaws, fears, pettiness and all – and loving it all without fear of what it says about you. If you haven’t practiced sitting with your child in their darkness and accepting their feelings without trying to change them, give that a try.
Love means accepting the darkness as well as the light.
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 an 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!
Free Parenting Reflection
This parenting reflection will help you think deeply about your relationship with your child and consider areas for improvement.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.