I have a 48-hour serenity limit when I’m with my parents. After two days, it’s like an alarm sounds inside me and sends me right back to 1999. I’m a petulant teenager again with a bad attitude, and everything my mother says, no matter how innocuous, inspires the response, “Ugh, Mom, stop nagging me!”
This unstoppable regression, which has been going on since I left for college, felt worse once I became a parent myself. I am an extremely grown woman now, I thought. I am beyond this. But, like clockwork, by the third day of exposure to my mom and dad, I’d be back in the ’90s, scowling and blasting the Breeders in a borrowed Honda.
I am far from alone in this. Psychologists even have a term to describe the way we fall back into predictable, maddening behavior patterns when we’re with our family of origin. It’s called family systems theory — the notion that families have an equilibrium, and each person has a fixed role that “is in service of keeping the family system intact,” said Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. So whatever your established role is — whether you’re the appeaser, or the family clown, or the petulant one — you’re going to be thrown right back there the second you walk through the door of your childhood home.
Kira Birditt, Ph.D., a research associate professor at the University of Michigan who has studied tension between adult children and their parents, said that 94 percent of respondents in her study on the topic reported some kind of strife in their relationships. Research also shows that the connection between mothers and adult daughters is especially fraught; Dr. Birditt described it as “the closest and most irritating” of almost all relationships. (One of the most life-changing episodes of my early adulthood was noticing my own mother get sulky at something her mother said.)
So, how do you get through the holidays with your folks without losing your damn mind? Here’s some sanity-preserving advice.
Prepare for your inevitable regression. It’s not a question of if the regression is going to happen, it’s when. Dr. Lakshmin advised that you do some mental work before visiting your family so that you can avoid triggering your worst behaviors. Ask yourself: Are there particular topics of conversation or physical places that tend to send your family into a tizzy? And then try to avoid those topics and places. Even changing scenery can help jog you out of old patterns, so if the family dinner table always devolves into chaos, try going out to eat one night and see if it improves relations.
Try to find empathy. The most typical negative mother-daughter interaction involves this dynamic: Adult daughters feel criticized by their mothers, and mothers feel their daughters are being too sensitive, said Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of “You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.” How the grandchildren are being raised is a major trigger for this dynamic, Dr. Tannen said: “Many women told me that they could take criticism about anything except their mothering skills.”
Dr. Tannen’s advice for grandparents: Bite your tongue, because even the most benign (to you) suggestion may be perceived as criticism. Her advice for adult daughters is, “try to remind yourself that it feels like criticism, but it is an expression of caring.” Your mother just wants everything to go well for you, and she’s trying to help (even if it makes you want to scream into a pillow).
Make space for yourself. You will need an escape hatch from time to time. “Whether this means hiding out in the bathroom for 10 minutes to cool down, structuring the length of visits or springing for a hotel rather than staying in your parents’ guest room,” make sure you’re somehow creating a space where you can get some emotional distance from your family, said Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of “The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships.” I always make sure I can exercise in the morning when I’m with family — it gives me a break from them and also is a good conduit for ambient rage.
Don’t expect change. The last thing to remember is that there won’t be a magical solution to your family trauma over the holidays, Dr. Lakshmin said. December is a stressful time — mental health professionals say it’s particularly hard on their patients — and it’s not the time to bring up old baggage and expect to work through it.
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Want More on Grandparent Relationships?
We have a whole article on how to deal with grandparents who cross boundaries. Carla Bruce-Eddings spoke to the experts, and they can help you navigate this bumpy new terrain. It’s important to remember: You always have the final say on how to manage your own kid.
It can be painful to have grandparents who can’t or won’t visit. FaceTime can help you connect, and Bridget Shirvell has other tips for forging that distance.
Paula Span writes a lovely column for the Times about modern grandparenting called “Generation Grandparent.”
Even though our parents may drive us bonkers, many of us feel quite lucky to have them around. Sara B. Franklin wrote a heart-rending essay for us about how caring for her parents during terminal illnesses helped prepare her for mothering. She describes herself as “carved by the grooves of loss.”
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
I got my 7-year-old daughter, who has autism, humming Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” which was a favorite song of mine as a child.
— Adriann Ravizee, Silver Spring, Md.
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