It’s never too soon to think about the holidays. In fact, your high schooler might be doing just that right now, plotting – even before Halloween has come and gone – to spend Thanksgiving weekend a thousand miles away at a field hockey tournament. Your college freshman may hope to go skiing over Christmas break with his new girlfriend’s family. Your twenty-somethings may figure you don’t mind if they skip the holiday visit home to spend the little vacation they have on an island vacation with friends.
When your child wants to opt out of a holiday, what do you say?
“It will kill your grandmother!”
”Go if you want. Why should I care?”
“No need for you here. Have fun!”
It would be best to say none of the above, experts advise. When the youngsters threaten to upset the holiday feast, you may be sorely tempted to revert to passive aggression, or guilt and manipulation, or unconsidered permissiveness. But as in all relationship issues, flexibility and direct talk could be the better choice – not only this year, but also in laying the groundwork for holidays to come.
As they mature, families face inevitable shifts in holiday rituals and traditions. Kids’ asking to opt out is all part of the healthy development of autonomy, but so is their understanding of the importance of being part of the group. The late teen/young adult rumblings are but a preview, of course, of what happens later, when they marry: Appetizers in one state and turkey in another? Diaper changes at rest stops in between? OK.
Ratcheting up the obligation factor complicates an already fraught experience, experts say. The families that allow each other breathing room are the ones most likely to keep members coming back. “I think that you really have to honor the individual in the group, and through that, the group becomes stronger,” says Emma Steiner, licensed clinical social worker and manager of clinical services with the Council for Relationships, in Philadelphia.
That doesn’t mean that parents indulge their child’s every impulse. In fact, often it’s better not to. It’s easy to get caught up in the arguments of a breathless, convincing teenager begging for freedom, but parents need keep sight of a broader perspective. To go or not to go – it really depends on the child’s age. Children living at home, for example, should be expected to be there for the holidays, says Ms. Steiner.
But their ideas needn’t be dismissed altogether. Far better to listen to what a teen is asking for and why it’s so important to them, and to have an equally serious explanation for why it’s so important to the family to have them included. With teens, happily, some things will take care of themselves – they realize they can’t afford a trip, for example, or perhaps some other distraction comes along.
Steiner says that as kids move into young adulthood, you can’t put your foot down so easily, nor should you, probably, as the need to exercise independence increases. But even then, it’s good for family members to know why their presence is so important. Steiner favors the direct approach: “It means a lot to me that this family does this together, but I’m not going to force you.” Regardless of his age, part of growing up for a young adult is the very process of thinking through and understanding that his role in the family is vital.
Compromise can work wonders as well. A few examples for parents include, “Would it help if I personally drive you to the airport Friday, for example, so you can be with us Thursday?”; “What if I try to make sure we finish things up here by 9 so you can go out and meet up with your friends?”; ”The cousins have always kind of agreed to be here unless they need to be with a spouse’s family.” With imagination and creativity, adaptations and new traditions can often allow everyone the space they need while retaining some family ritual.
Special circumstances need extra sensitivity – separation and divorce, for example. Ideally, divorced parents can present a unified front with respect to their children’s’ holidays, and perhaps can even reach a point where they have holidays together for their children’s sake, says Steiner. She adds that sometimes, children grieving the dissolution of their family will benefit from going away and doing something completely different, at least for the first year, using a break with tradition to help to blunt the pain of loss.
Finally, Steiner stresses that doing a holiday differently one year doesn’t have to define the future. Whether part of normal growth, or as part of a grieving process, often a child or young adult needs just a brief break from normal and then the family can move back toward old ways. “Hopefully it’s a one-off year.” she says. Regardless, families who are close all year round can roll more easily with the inevitable unmet expectations of any given holiday.
Once you've done the most important part – the gathering of the clan – the best is yet to come: The ping pong tournament in the basement, the football in the back yard, the backgammon in front of the fire. On the table will be Uncle Vince's pies, the perfect flower arrangement, and Nan's good china. But before the fun begins, maybe go send the kids to set the table.