Adult Children of Divorce: Holiday Stress Relief Guide

Become Everybody’s Favorite Relative

I know a young couple who both have divorced parents. They feel obligated to drive from one house to another throughout the holiday season. The wife’s Mom can’t stand to be in the same room with Dad and his new wife. Ditto for the husband and his parents.

Sound familiar?

Los Angeles Traffic Thanksgiving 2016. Lovely, unless you’re sitting in it, with crying babies and in-laws tapping their feet, standing by the door, anxiously awaiting your arrival…

Once they started having children, holidays became an even greater nightmare. Mom and Dad, and Mom-in-law and Dad-in-law all insisted on seeing the grandchildren within the 24-hour period around Christmas Day. The “acceptable” window for visiting got crammed into a smaller and smaller period. Did I mention that this was in Southern California?

Southern California freeways, in the car, during the holidays, with small children: ho, ho, ho.


If you or your spouse are the adult children of divorce in this situation, here are some tips.

Try a New Pre-Holiday Thought Process:

  1. Understand that your family is not the only one dealing with this problem. Millions of people have divorced and remarried. Many of them have created this complicated mess in their lives and their children’s lives. You are not alone!
  2. Understand that you are now adults. You do not have to obey your parents.
  3. You may feel strongly that your parents’ love for you is fragile, and dependent on your compliance with their wishes. Realize that this may or may not be true.
  4. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt. Assume they can be generous and mature with you. Try making a plan that works for your family. Offer this plan to your parents. See what they do.
  5. If your parents’ love for you DOES depends on your compliance with all their wishes, or upon getting their own way all the time, I would like to say to you: they are bad parents. Period. Full Stop.
  6. I would also like to say this to you: I am sorry. This should not be happening to you. Everyone deserves loving parents.
  7. You are more obligated to your own children than you are to your parents. Given a choice between the good of your children, and the good of your parents, it should be a no-brainer. Take care of your kids first. Let your parents be adults.
  8. Ask yourself this: will there ever be a better year for you to get a grip on this situation? Each year that goes by, your parents are getting older. One day, they will be frail, and will legitimately need for you to accommodate them. Why not try now, to obtain some peace?

Dealing with your particularly difficult relatives

  1. You are not obligated to include every family member in your holiday celebrations. You are not obligated to spend time with people who routinely make you or your family members miserable. You can send them a card or some other greeting by mail, that does not require you to be in their immediate presence.
  2. If there is someone whose behavior has been so egregious that you do not want to include them, then, don’t include them. But ask yourself this: if this person’s behavior is so bad that you don’t want them in your home, why would you allow them to dictate how you spend your Christmas?
  3. BTW, “bad behavior” or “egregious behavior” includes things like, “molested me and my siblings for years.” It does not include, “my mom is uncomfortable around him for no particular reason at all.”

Make a New Plan

  1. Let yourself dream: what plan would work for you and your family? You and your spouse brainstorm about what would be comfortable for your family, all things considered. Come up with a couple of plans that work for you. Don’t concern yourself with other family members at this point.
  2. Make a pact with your spouse. The pact is this: “We are sticking together with this plan. Once we have made a decision together, we are going to follow through.” If you can’t agree to that, perhaps you need to reconsider the plan itself, until you have a plan you can both live with.
  3. Plan to back each other up. Agree now that you will not call up your relatives and tell them your husband made you agree to this terrible idea. Agree now that if your mom calls you up complaining, you will not let her talk you into undermining your wife and the plan you made with her. (I’ve talked to lots of people about marriage problems. You’d be amazed at how often parents try to sabotage their children’s marriages. Especially if they are divorced themselves.)
  4. Once you and your spouse have a plan that you really want, take some time preparing to break it to your other relatives. Spend time in prayer. Ask God to relieve you of any bitterness. Ask to be filled with love. Remind yourself of endearing and lovable traits of your difficult relatives. Take a deep breath. Only then, pick up the phone.
  5. Propose your plan to your relatives with as little drama as possible. Your purpose here is to convey simple information. Your purpose is NOT to solve every family problem, or relieve a lifetime of hurts and disappointments.
  6. Try something like this, “We are going to have Christmas dinner at our house this year. Everyone is welcome. We will have a turkey on the table at 4 PM. You are welcome to bring a dish to share and a guest. (This allows your dad to bring his current girlfriend.) What would you and your guest like to bring?”
  7. Or, “We are going to have our own Christmas this year, just our little family, on Christmas Day. We will be glad to have visitors on ‘Day X.’ We will be glad to visit you on ‘Day Y.’” (Fill in X and Y with whatever works for you.)
  8. You can add this to your invitation, if you this necessary, “By the way, if you do not behave, we will ask you to leave. Just a reminder.”
  9. Ladies, if you have a husband who really will follow through and expel misbehaving relatives, thank him. And thank God for him. It is not a comfortable thing to have to do. But sometimes, it does have to be done.
  10. While I’m on the subject, gentlemen, if your wife really will put you ahead of her mother, be grateful. Thank her. (See above!)
  11. After the holiday dust has settled, make a point of reaching out to the people you were unable to see in person. Be as pleasant as possible. Tell them you missed them (if it is true.) Tell them you love them.

But what if they get mad at us!!! 

  1. Then they get mad. You can’t control their feelings. You know that you spoke to them calmly, with love, and without bitterness. (See above.)
  2. You know that you did your best to consider the good of your children. That is what good parents do: sacrifice their own comfort for the good of their children. Adults should not be asking children to sacrifice for them.
  3. If you spoke clearly and calmly, you did not “make” anybody feel anything. You made some simple statements. Allow other people to have their feelings and reactions. If they have a melt-down, it is not really your fault. 

You will be everybody’s favorite relative. 

  1. Well, maybe not everybody’s. The kind of person who insists on getting their own way all the time is not really available to be in genuine relationship with others. You won’t be their favorite relative. But that was never a realistic possibility in the first place.
  2. But if you put a stop to some serious nonsense, some of your family members will be grateful to you. And others will be grateful later. You will become a hero to that part of your family!

That’s it! You can become Everybody’s Favorite Relative. Or at least, your spouse’s favorite!


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