"It won't be the holidays without you," says many a parent to their grown adult child.
"It's already started," says the father of three young children. "The competition between the in-laws for how much time they will get with us over Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is why I hate the holidays."
"Some of our most interesting arguments through our 40 years of marriage have been over how we will spend the holidays," says Jennifer Baker, clinical psychologist and grandmother of seven. "We both came to the marriage with our ideas of how the holidays should go and, most of the time, we waited until the last minute to figure out what we were going to do, which never worked out well for us."
Baker has had many young couples in her office, trying to figure out how to negotiate in-laws, out-laws and other family members' expectations for holiday celebrations. Baker tells them straight up to decide now how they want to spend the holidays. While they may not be able to make the change this year, they can start talking about how things will be different next year right after the holidays are over. Baker says the key is to repeat it early and often, every chance they get so, by the time November arrives, no one is surprised that they are doing things differently.
"I think my generation forgets how difficult holiday expectations can be on young marriages and families," says Baker. "The pressures are great, and many families go just to keep the peace, but internally they feel resentment and bitterness."
Even in her own home, Baker recently had a conversation with her husband in which he questioned why their son couldn't just come to their house for Christmas. "We always went to my parents," he said. Baker reminded him that their son and his family live 600 miles away and have three young children. It would be much easier for her and her husband to travel to them since they have more flexibility.
"If I could say something to parents of adult children, it would be to encourage them to be more flexible and understanding," says Baker. "It is crazy the tactics some parents use to pressure their kids to be with them on certain holidays."
On the other hand, Baker believes that, in some instances, adult children overestimate the drama that will occur if they announce they are doing the holidays differently. She tells the adult children that their parents will never respect them unless they respect themselves. Part of respecting yourself is being able to say what you need as a person and family.
"Sadly, we create this image that if everybody will just be nice, everything will be fine," says Baker. "Not true. Underneath the surface are all kinds of emotions floating around and, at some point, they will surface and it won't be pretty. Parents need to remember that you want your children to have their own holidays and traditions. We need to support them in that because it helps their marriage and their family. Typically, older generations have more time and resources to be flexible when it comes to holiday celebrations."
The holidays don't have to be superficial. Perhaps it's time to give your adult children the freedom to choose how and when they celebrate with you. While it might take some time to adjust, the outcome could be the best holiday celebration ever.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.