“She tells me what to do and I do it,” my dad complained repeatedly. He was in his 70s, his mother, my grandmother, was in her 90s, yet he regressed to his 10-year-old self, doing whatever she said—no matter how inconvenienced, impatient or resentful he felt.
During the holidays when families gather, I’m always reminded of my father’s displeasure. It is difficult for adult children not to bow to their parents’ holiday plans or to try to change family traditions. Wanting to please parents is a natural instinct. After all, we spent most of our growing-up years seeking our parents’ approval. But what if you feel the need to change the status quo well into adulthood? When what you want to do is stifled or ignored?
Falling into old patterns of giving in or reverting to past mommy-daddy child roles—when parents’ requests are contrary to what we want—creates stress and discontent. For instance, a parent mandates holiday dinner at 2:00 and that’s when your child usually naps. Or, your parents insist on cooking an over-the-top meal—a tradition—that leaves you running around frantic. Or, they rope you into a political discussion at the dinner table. Or, a parent insists you devour a piece of pie you loved as a child. It doesn’t seem to matter to your mother or father that, as a grown-up, you dislike pecans or blueberries or pumpkin anything or that you recently struggled to lose 15 pounds. Instead, your mother or aunt or uncle reminds that she baked it just for you. Oh, those guilt-producing relatives!
At what point does an adult child get to be the grown-up? How do you make changes without upsetting someone so you can thoroughly enjoy being with the family? No one wants to regress to childhood behaviors of arguing or causing hurt feelings with family members, but you clearly don’t want to consume all those calories or bend to someone else’s inconvenient schedule only to have a cranky child who missed her nap.
It’s not easy to say no to your family
When you were a child, you depended on parents fully; as an adult child that is no longer the case. Many parents are understandably reluctant to change the way they have always “done” the holidays. You don’t want to disappoint them, but oftentimes their desires make your life more difficult.
Year after year Helen (name changed), the mother of four, piled her young children into the car, drove five hours to her in-law’s house so her husband’s siblings—four of them, each with children of their own—and the rest of the collected large family could be together on Christmas Day. As the children got older, the complaints and the arguments intensified. Helen and her children wanted to be in their house on Christmas morning. Helen began to dread the approaching holidays. When her oldest was 10, Helen put an end to the misery by simply saying to her husband, “No, we are not driving to your parents for Christmas anymore.”
You have choices, but it can feel as if you have no control over the situation. Your family has had the same rituals for as long as you can remember—and some delight you, making you happy to comply. Others drain you, even make you angry because your family doesn’t seem to recognize that you are an adult who might wish to address the holidays in a different way.
’Tis the season to say “no” to family
Most parents don’t like traditions changed, and you may not either, but there comes a time for adult children when a change or a tweak is wise or at the least, their preference. Expect pushback but stand firm. Almost all relatives adjust because they do not want to sever the bond and connection they have with you. Here are ways to alter holiday patterns that may feel as if they are set in stone in your family:
- Many parents and other family members may not realize how inconvenient or upsetting a particular plan is. No one is a mind reader, making it imperative to state your “case” and stop being the obedient child.
- Soften the blow of changes to major holiday traditions by acknowledging parents’ disappointment and wish to celebrate in a certain way, but protect yourself at the same time. Reassure them that you love them and want to be with them, but that is not possible this year.
- Give as much advance notice as you can. Perhaps you have a partner or spouse now and plan to spend the holiday with his or her family. Let your family know as soon as you do that you are going elsewhere this year (or next). If you intend to alternate the holiday with in-laws every year, make your parents aware.
- If not with your family on the actual holiday, connect via video or phone.
- Suggest getting together the weekend (or week) before or after the holiday to celebrate. Couching your “no” with options often softens the idea of change and makes it more acceptable.
- Move the holiday celebration to your house whether the switch is to accommodate your children’s schedules, burdensome travel or to remove the “heavy-lifting” from a parent (who just might be relieved at not being fully responsible).
- Be clear that you love the traditions and celebrations you grew up with, but that you want to start some of your own.
- At a holiday event, move away from a relative who probes you in sensitive areas or distresses you in some way. Or, make a topic off limits by saying, “I’m not discussing my dating life (or fertility or hairstyle or weight) today. It’s a holiday.”
- Call up your sense of humor. Laugh at the silliness of a situation or relative that irks you.
Think through possible consequences of your “no.” The fallout is rarely as terrible as you think it will be. Parents and family will come to respect and view you as the adult you are now. Keep reminding yourself that you are a grown-up and entitled to make choices that may ruffle some holiday feathers, but allow you to feel the joy of the holidays, and actually enjoy them for once.