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Juggling Family Holiday Traditions

How adult kids are changing the way

spinner image Juggling Family Holiday Traditions
What's the secret to balancing family time at the holidays?
Blend Images/Alamy

When it comes to the holidays and our millennial children, the classic song lyrics "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go" need an update.

Rather than visit, the kids may ask us to do the traveling. If they do come to us, there's a good chance it won't be on the actual holiday.

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For parents of adult children, the holidays can mean abandoning decades-long traditions, and that's not without some angst. But parents need to adapt to the changing family dynamic, says clinical psychotherapist Deanna Brann, author of Reluctantly Related. "Parents can't assume that the traditions they've always had are going to continue."

Parents may maintain that assumption because their holiday routines have continued for so long, often into their children's 20s. College students and young adults flock home until they get married. Then the changes start.

Parents should anticipate that newlyweds will have their own plans. Brann suggests asking them well in advance if they've thought about the holidays as a married couple, considering there's now another family in the mix. They might not have an immediate answer, but it will get them thinking.

The changes don't end with the arrival of in-laws. When grandchildren arrive, the pattern needs altering again. While some couples are happy to bundle up the babies and head over the hill to Grandma's, usually there comes a time when the family wants to be in their own living room to celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Christmas.

Parents might feel out of the loop, wondering if they are invited. Brann suggests asking an open-ended question: "We'd love to come to your house. What day works best?"

For several years, her son and his wife lived several states away. After they had children, they welcomed Brann, her husband and the other grandparents but asked them to arrive after 2 p.m. on Christmas. The young couple wanted to celebrate in the morning with just their children.

"Adult children have the right to create their own traditions, and parents need to be respectful of that," Brann says.

However, if your son and his new family always celebrate with his wife's relatives on the actual holiday, then that can cause hurt feelings on the husband's side. "If spending the actual holiday is important to his wife, then the husband is usually willing to go along," Brann says. "His goal in life is to make his wife happy. Where he spends the day is just not that important to most men."

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Her advice: Don't take it personally if you don't see your adult children on a specific day.

That flexibility has been the guiding principle for Debbie, the mother of four sons in their 30s. Debbie (who prefers not to reveal her last name) has found that managing the holidays requires strategic planning. Two of her sons are married with young children and live hours away; the two unmarried sons live nearby. Each year seems to bring more moving parts, with husbands and wives working, children in day care and school, and the young parents establishing their own Christmas morning traditions.

"We start talking in October. I'd like to start in September, but no one else wants to," Debbie says with a laugh. The strategizing is done via group emails and texts.

Debbie and her husband defer to their children. "We don't want them to feel pressure to come home for a specific day. We also don't expect everyone to be together."

Ultimately, the family gets together in various configurations every year — sometimes at Debbie's house, other times at another family's home. A plus: "The celebration goes on all Christmas week," she says, "and it seems like the holiday never ends."

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at

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