Strangers at the Table: The Headaches of Extended Family During the Holidays

The holidays elicit strong feelings about family -- hopeful, regretful or homicidal.
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My brother cut off all contact with my parents the night before Thanksgiving. He was 25 at the time. "I'm not coming this year,'' he told my mother while she was spreading the Butterball turkey's legs to receive her Dayton-wide famous stuffing. "I need some time away from you and dad. I don't know how long, but I won't be calling you, and please don't call me.''

My mom cried and my father got mad.

I was confused. I couldn't understand why my brother needed to cut off contact with my parents when he was already living miles away. And why right before Thanksgiving, when he could satisfy his caloric requirements for the next two months in one simple meal?

I now see that his timing wasn't coincidental. The holidays elicit strong feelings about family -- hopeful, regretful or homicidal. And Thanksgiving is one of the Big Boys -- a nondenominational, bipartisan, school-excused, frequent-flyer, triglyceride-grabbing holiday that can act as a gaping black hole for family feelings and memories.

For many people, the tender images touted by Madison Avenue and the television networks create intense feelings of sadness, loneliness, shame, guilt or anger. These media-generated, picture-perfect, feel-good families can underscore the disparity between the relationships people have with their parents or their children, and the relationships they wish they had.

Around the holidays, unresolved family issues tend to get hotter than a pan of jewel yams, because they keep us from being as close as we want to be to our families. Well, we may want to be estranged from our particular family -- but we want to be a member of some family where we feel loved, respected and appreciated.

Children carry the memory of hurt or anger from family relationships well into adulthood. Many people stay away from their parents or visit them reluctantly, bracing themselves to swallow, ignore or fight over issues that have haunted them for years. Some, with time, acceptance or the help of therapy, are able to make peace with what they didn't get -- and never will -- from their parents. In other families, where the parents are healthy enough to address their mistakes and change their behavior, relationships can often become stronger and more resilient.

My brother cut off contact with my parents because he didn't believe he could grow as a person and be close to them at the same time. He experienced my mother's chronic worry as a lack of faith in him and my father's desire to give advice and lecture as a command to never grow up.

But the parenting that was so burdensome and smothering to my brother had a different effect on me. I took on the role of the good son -- appreciative of my father's advice and diligent in avoiding behaviors that would worry my mother. I also became the family consigliere, defending my parents' behavior to my brother, much to his disgust, while studiously ignoring their faults.

"He won't be coming for the holidays,'' was a phrase I heard in several incarnations throughout those years. If my mother was telling her sisters, her voice would become soft and sad as a Billy Holiday song, burdened with the weight of regret and of missing him. If she was talking to a casual acquaintance, it was a breezy "you-know-how-boys-are!" tone that flew out of her mouth as she steered the conversation to safer ground. My father was angry that my brother didn't want to see them and couldn't understand why he cut them off. He didn't admit to being sad, but I knew he was by the way he looked at the ground and slowly shook his head when I talked about my brother's work or school.

The fact that my brother and I reacted so differently to the same parents is not unusual. Parenting is a science of approximations. What works magically for the first child may be irrelevant for the next. Some parents are great with certain types of kids and clueless with others -- better with boys than girls, better with girls than boys, better with cats than either one. I was more patient with my daughter than I am with my twin sons -- her nature was calm and introspective, which freed up time for playing, talking or reading. My boys are loud, rowdy and constantly in motion; a larger percentage of my parental reserves goes toward containing and corralling them so they don't disassemble our house and build a skateboard ramp out of the spare parts.

None of us are perfect as parents, and all of us wound our children to some degree or another. Ideally, we try to pass on as many good things as we can, but, inevitably, we pass on some of our problems as well.

Something that may look trivial from the outside can be suffocating or damaging to the person who lives inside that family. "My mother had a pretty low standard of parenting,'' a friend once told me. "Tell your children that you love them and don't beat them. My father didn't, so he was a success in her eyes. And everybody loved my father because he was really funny and outgoing. They never saw his subtle, day-to-day humiliations of us.''

People who grow up in families like this -- where the deficits in the parenting are less overt -- don't know they're being denied the small day-to-day acts of encouragement and involvement that create a person, layer by precious layer. As adults, they don't understand why they feel sad or inadequate, or can't apply themselves to things they value, or choose relationships with people who are harmful to them.

Even for well-intentioned parents, pitfalls abound. One of the cruelest ironies of parenting is that we can do so much harm even when we are trying to do our best.

An example of this is when parents damage the relationship with their children by trying not to make the same mistakes their parents made. One of my colleagues grew up in a commune in the '60s. "I was given a ton of freedom because my parents were rebelling against their parents' conservatism. They were worried that discipline and limits would destroy my innocence and creativity. I remember asking if I could smoke pot with them when I was 10, and they said, 'You decide. If you think that it's a good idea, then it's a good idea.' I was 10 years old! How would I know what a good idea was? Now that I'm a parent, I'm super strict. My kids practically need permission to blink, and they resent me for it, but it's better than what I had."

Maybe. But adopting a parenting style at the opposite extreme of our childhood experience can create other problems. One couple, for example, risked their lives to come to America so that their children could take advantage of opportunities they never had. They constantly harassed their children to do better, and loudly criticized their efforts and achievements. If the children performed poorly in school, they berated them. As a result, their kids were burdened with strong feelings of worthlessness and guilt when they became adults.

These parents did the best they could, given what they knew. But fearing that their children would suffer in poverty, as they had, made them blind to the harm they were causing.

So should their children, now adults, forgive and forget?

Sure, if they can. But there is so much pressure in our culture to "get over it'' and "move on'' and "grow up'' that many people aren't allowed to look back long enough to grieve what they didn't get from their parents without someone calling them immature. They end up blaming themselves for inadequacies and conflicts without understanding how those problems came to be. And if they're blaming themselves for all of their problems, they may not be ready to forgive their parents. Forgiveness can only come when we know, in our cranberry-colored blood, that we didn't deserve to be treated badly, no matter what our parents' intentions.

Yet sometimes, the worst possible betrayals can be healed. In my experience of working with families who are trying to reconcile, the best outcomes occur when adult children are able to talk about their experience in the family and the parents are willing to admit to the possibility that they may have caused harm.

This is not easy for most parents to do, and it's rarely pleasant. It's an especially tall order to accept, with love and grace, the anger of a child who has an incorrect or partial picture of a parent at the time a transgression took place. Conversely, for parents who know they were at fault, there is the added weight of managing their own guilt and sorrow on top of their child's hurt and anger. It takes strength and courage to face that we have hurt someone so important to us. But like it or not, it's part of the job we parents sign up for when we create a child.

Parents have a right to have their perspective heard. There are separate realities in a family, and sometimes this is most strongly reflected in the difference between a child's view of the parents' behavior and the parents' view of themselves. Airing this perspective, however, shouldn't be done as a way to prove the child wrong. It should be done after there has been considerable demonstration on the part of the parents that they have correctly heard what their child has said, and that they are open to making efforts to address that hurt.

All parents do the best they can given what they know and what they have to draw upon. However, it's important for both the parent and the adult child to recognize that this is where the discussion should begin, not end.

Several years ago, my brother reunited with my parents after more than a decade apart. They'll be spending this Thanksgiving together. With a lot of effort on both sides, they were able to work out the differences that kept them apart for so long.

As children, we don't get to choose the family we grow up with. But as adults, we get to decide who we want to have or not have in our lives. Being a member of a family is often a challenge, even in the best of circumstances. If we are able to make peace with our family, so much the better. If not, it's our job to surround ourselves with people who treat us the way that we want and need to be treated.

Many people are confused about whether to blame themselves or their parents, whether to forgive or not forgive, whether being mad is infantile or an appropriate labeling of responsibility. We start out believing our parents know everything and slowly begin to see what they know and what they don't -- if we're lucky.

Hopefully, our parents are willing to admit their mistakes and hear what it was like for us to be a child or a teenager or an adult in their homes. As parents, hopefully, we have children who are willing to forgive us for the hurt we caused when we were too tired, too frustrated or too selfish to do a better job. Hopefully we can forgive ourselves if they won't. Hopefully their view of us will more closely align with our view of ourselves, over time.And hopefully, we are secure in the knowledge that we deserve to have people around us -- whether family or friends -- who care about our worries, value our friendship and take joy in our happiness.

Having that -- at any time of year -- is a reason to give thanks.


Here are some suggestions for talking with your parents about incidents that have hurt or angered you. Be aware that expressing your feelings, even in the most expert manner, is not a guarantee of a positive outcome and should only be attempted when you feel emotionally ready. Communicating in this manner, however, may help you discover whether a relationship is ready to move toward reconciliation.

1. Pick a time and place that feels comfortable to you where you can talk without interruption.

2. Tell your parent(s) what you would like from the conversation: "I would like to tell you some feelings I have,'' or "I just want you to try to listen and not respond.''

3. If possible, begin the conversation with something you like or admire about your parent to show that your goal isn't to humiliate them: "I know that you really care about me . . .'' or ``I know you worked hard to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. I really appreciate that . . .''

4. Put your feelings into nonblaming language: "I still feel very hurt for all of those years when you were physical with me. It really made me feel like I was a bad person,'' or "When you talk to me in that tone of voice, it makes me feel terrible.''

5. Assume that your parents have positive intentions: "I know you wouldn't want me to feel this bad and that you care about our relationship,'' or "I know you probably want to work as hard as I do to make our relationship better than it's been,'' or "I understand that you might not have known how bad that felt to me.''

6. Say what you need in order to go forward: "I just need to hear you say that you're sorry for those years,'' or "I want you to call me more,'' or "I just need you to hear how bad that made me feel.''


1. Realize that your adult child is raising these issues as a way to be closer to you, even if they are being expressed in a way that's difficult to hear.

2. If you find yourself feeling too upset or defensive to listen, tell them that in a gentle way: "I know what you're telling me is really important and I'm glad you came to me with it. It is hard for me to hear and I think I'll be able to digest it better if I could first read it in a letter. I promise I'll call you so we can talk about it. I hope that feels OK.''

3. Validate their reality as much as you can, even if there's only a small part you agree with: "Yeah, I can be really impatient. I can see how that could have come across as uncaring.'' If you're unable to agree with anything that's being said, empathize with their feelings without telling them they're wrong: "I'm so sorry it came across that way. The last thing I wanted was for you to feel like I didn't love you. That must have been awful for you.''

4. Don't sugarcoat it if you blew it as a parent. The more honest you are, the more credibility you will gain to repair the damage: "What you're saying is true. I wasn't there for you as a parent. I was too caught up in my work and my drinking, and you suffered because of it. I can't ever give you back those years and I feel terrible about that. I am committed to doing everything I can to make it up to you, if you'll let me.''

5. Take the initiative for talking again within a short period of time. "I wanted to check in to see how you felt about our talk last week. I really appreciate that you told me what you'd been feeling. Have you had other thoughts about it?'' This may need to be an ongoing dialogue for a long time in order for change and healing to occur. Don't avoid revisiting it because it's painful territory. Show that you want to keep talking about it until there's resolution. If there is no resolution, make it clear that you value your child's attempt to bring the issues to the table and that you're open to talking about them more in the future.

This article originally appeared in the SF Chronicle.

You can learn more about these issues and strategies in my new book, "WHEN PARENTS HURT: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along" (HarperCollins)

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