Why Your Family Gives You Anxiety Over the Holidays

Don’t get me wrong: I love going home for the holidays. I love gorging myself on sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, feeling justified in hunkering down and doing absolutely nothing, and most of all, that feeling of time being on hold—as if everything is simply and beautifully still as it once was. But there are also some things that I don’t love about these family visits: having to decide where to spend them given my parents live on opposite coasts, or when grandma inevitably asks when I’m going to start popping out babies, or when dad reminds me how tough a field journalism can be. (“You could still decide to go to medical school!”)

“Holidays can be a source of misery or joy,” Jane Isay writes in her book, "Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents." And, Isay explains, the holidays can be especially tense for young adults—because it’s a time of being caught between adulthood and childhood identities.

Isay, who is now at work on her fourth book on family dynamics (called "Unconditional Love: A GPS for Grandparents"), knows just how tricky and complicated those relationships can be. We got the chance to talk with Isay about handling them as a young adult, what happens when 20-somethings go back to their childhood homes for a holiday visit, and tips on how to keep the spirits high and the drama low while you’re there there. Here’s what she had to say.

ATTN: First off, what drew you to writing "Walking on Eggshells"?

Jane Isay: It was very simple—I had sons in their 20s, and they weren’t answering my phone calls. And my friends were all in the same spot. We had raised them to be independent, but we couldn’t understand why they seemed to be so independent. So I set out to talk to parents of grown children from the ages of 55 to 85 and grown children from 25 to 55 to see what was going on. And what I discovered, most shockingly, is that the ones who weren’t returning our phone calls, or that who were leaving angry messages, love us. It’s that they need to find a way to be independent—and in this day and age it’s between 20 and 30 that young people find their way and need to be more separated from their parents.

ATTN: How does this sort of conflict or discomfort come out around holiday season?

One of the people in my book described how as she drove closer to her parents her back would get more tense. And then when Thanksgiving was over, as she drove away those tense muscles would ease and by the time she got to the interstate she was fine. A lot of people feel that going home puts them back in the nursery—it’s like instant replay of childhood. The sense of smell is one of the most primitive and powerful sense that we have: So the smell of the turkey and mom’s sweet potatoes can really get you right back to the old childhood patterns. It’s comfortable and uncomfortable, both. The young people I interviewed, they’d say, “I could last four days [at home] before a blowup…no, make that three.” It’s just a tense time.

ATTN: Where do those blowups tend to come from?

Well, here’s a phrase that goes through everybody’s mind, unspoken: “She always …” “you never …” These vast generalizations—as in, they’re true in general but not always—begin to flood. My theory is that if you have more than one family member in the room, there’s gonna be issues. Thanksgiving is supposed to be this wonderful happy time when everybody loves each other—and everybody does love each other, but things happen. My biggest suggestion to everybody going home for the holidays is have your own transportation, so you can get away.

ATTN: To have a means of escape.

A means of escape! And if you live in the city you can take public transportation, but just getting away from that intense family brew for a half hour makes such a difference. You can also always just go around the corner. Even if it’s pouring rain, you can say, “God, I just love walking in the rain.” [It’s a chance to reinstate] your own perspective, and also your own identity. The move at Thanksgiving is regression: everybody regresses. And sometimes you need to get some fresh air and turn into the person you really are.

ATTN: You mean the person you’ve become, as an adult?

That’s right. The person you’re growing into has perspective. So the fact that Aunt Helen’s beans have been not only cooked but killed gives you a laugh instead of “I have to eat these, ick.” The thing that keeps everybody going fine is perspective. I have found over the years, that point of view is everything. If your point of view is, “These are the people who gave me life, and they sure can annoy me and I hate it when I feel so little … but I love them.”

And people in their 20s will eventually establish themselves as full standing adults. And once they do, it’ll be less uncomfortable at home. It just takes time. The discomfort really comes from this pull between being a child again and needing to be an adult.

ATTN: What would you say to a person in their 20s to help them see how having them back for the holidays might also be tough on their parents at times?

Well, the parents are anxious that you’re going to be tense. And they don’t want to blow up, either. Parents would really be thrilled if when you came home and wanted to be treated like an adult, you were an adult. So don’t come home expecting to be treated like an adult with a great big bag of dirty laundry for your mom to do. And help; one of the things that adults do is they help. And remember that we love having you home and we remember when you were adorable children, but we’re not sure how to keep you from being annoyed.

ATTN: Parents are also trying to figure the relationship dynamic out.

We’re walking on eggshells; we really are. And, you know, it’s “shall I ask about whether she has a boyfriend?” Oohhhh, no, don’t ask. It’s about boundaries. It’s the new map of your child’s life. Have I stepped over that boundary? Have you closed the borders? We don’t know. Know that the parents are doing their best, but they don’t know where the landmines are in your life. Because if you’re coming home from Thanksgiving, you haven’t been home for a while, we don’t know what your life is like. You’re too busy living it. So we’re eager to see you, we love you, love you, love you, but we’re nervous about what the flash points are going to be with what we say.

And I think for parents if they see that their grown children are doing their best to come with love and some kind of acceptance of what kind of weird people we are, it’s a great relief. Everybody is weird. You know?

ATTN: I have definitely found that in my 20s I’ve been better able see my own parents more fully as people, weirdness and all. How do you recommend young adults learn more about their families?

I think the assignment for the 20-something is to listen sometimes. And if the elder generation is at the table, they can make it really great. Because their stories of your parents growing up will be really charming. Basically this is a time when the grown children get the opportunity to know their parents in a way that they couldn’t when they were small. Talk to the aunts and uncles. Imagine yourself as Nancy Drew in your own home. Listen to people, talk to them, draw them out. You’d be amazed how much people love talking about themselves.

ATTN: And it can be fun fun uncovering those little tidbits.

That’s right! And [getting] a better understanding of your family, all that will do is grow you. One of the big kind of headlines for people in their 20s is this is a time for you to become more aware that they are only human beings. They’re just people. They’re not the gods on Mt. Olympus—you know, they’re just people. And maybe somebody will snap. They’re just people. And even if you have a miserable Thanksgiving, it’s not the end of the family. The family has roots so deep.