man and woman cooking

Holidays can magnify cracks in family relationships

As you sit in the hot dining room at a crowded table eating rich food and listening to loud conversations, you say to yourself, "It's only once a year." The festivities can become more intense if some guests feel the holiday spirit and consume extra spirits.

This can be tedious for some, torturous for others when there is rift between family members, often prompted by a strained or broken relationship between parent and grown child. It seems that there is a groundswell of older Gen Xers and late Baby Boomers talking about their 'ungrateful' adult children.

Robert* is one of them. He has two adult children, a son 38 and a daughter 35, from whom he has felt ingratitude over the years. He chose a “friend and confidant role, rather than disciplinarian or role model” when they were young, especially after he and his wife divorced when the children were 13 and 10 respectively.

What he describes as a “messy divorce” left him feeling guilty. Flash forward to five years ago and what he thought was a “really good father/ daughter relationship” ended when the daughter cut off contact. “For more than a year I was out of her life and not allowed to see my grandchild,” he explains. This started with an argument about his concerns regarding a parenting style that he felt was hindering the child's emotional growth. “I was concerned about how she was being raised, and she didn’t appreciate or want my opinion. She took it as an insult and became vindictive.”

The situation has been smoothed over through the years and now they are now on speaking terms, but Robert doesn’t feel the relationship has the same closeness as before. “Both of us have made a slight effort to respect each other, but I still feel like every communication has an air of caution about it.” He has chosen not to seek further resolution because “we’re at a good place now, and I don’t want to risk that.”

For those seeking resolution, seeing the other person’s viewpoint and taking responsibility for your role in the argument is a good way to start mending the rift, says Camilla Bignell, who consults with family-owned businesses to help with transitions and improve the bottom line. “There are always two perspectives,” she adds giving an example from Louise Hay’s book You Can Heal Your Life. “She found that there are over 250 ways to wash dishes, depending on the person and ingredients used. And if the parent wants to wash them one way, it doesn’t mean that the child can’t wash them a different way and still be right.” She advises finding a mutually convenient time in a neutral location to sit down and talk it out, using ‘I’ statements.

* Name changed for privacy

Dr. Marnie Wedlake, a registered psychotherapist and an assistant pro-fessor in Western’s School of Health Sciences, agrees. “Don’t point the finger, saying ‘You’re so ungrateful,’ she illustrates. “Instead say, ‘I’ve been feeling such and such, can we have a conversation?’” Though she cautions against having that conversation if you’re not ready for it. “If you ask a question, you have to be ready to receive the answer. It’s not like a movie or TV situation; it can be really hurtful to hear the raw truth. Do some positive self-talk to prep: ‘Whatever I hear, I’m going to sit with it.’” Being reactive will not move the discussion in a positive direction.

Wedlake says that the present wave of discord between the generations may be caused by evolving parenting methods, citing the ‘children are seen and not heard’ philosophy of previ-ous generations has moved towards a more balanced style. “As people have become more enlightened about child development, our understanding has grown about early attachment and establishing a sense of self and a sense of agency.” In some cases, she feels that this can lead to a child being “overly aware of their own needs to the detri-ment to the needs of others.”

“It’s so much harder for them (adult children) to be independent these days than our generation,” says psychother-apist Jen Slay, citing high education debt and housing costs as detriments to independence.” She has seen this in her own family. “My parents are first-gen-eration Canadians who didn’t have any choice but to be independent and help their families back home. But my kids see my parents helping me and take for granted that I’ll help them.”

While this can be positive, Slay sees the downside. “When we take adver-sity out of life, we take away peoples’ abilities to use their resilience and learn to cope,” she adds. Her remedy: “If you feel your adult child is ungrateful, stop doing everything for them. Allow them to experience life for what it is; some will thank you.”

All three experts agree that the feeling of being taken for granted is most often the root of the problem and advise those who want to have a closer relationship with their adult child to consider their perspective when seeking resolution. Remember the mantra ‘I choose peace’ when you both are ready to talk it out.

Camilla Bignell offers tips for a peaceful family holiday dinner.

This is your loved one. What is it you love a bout them? Focus on that.

Minimize the chance of conflict by doing something that involves humour, movement or nature.

This might mean no politics, no religion or o ther topics that elevate emotion.

If someone you love has a history of behaving one way, they’re not likely to suddenly change. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment.

Often life can be so busy and hectic that we aren’t aware of the special things for which we should be grateful.

Keep alcohol or recreational drugs to a minimum, so you don’t regret your actions or words later.

Respond with something like, “This is not the time or place. Let’s plan to address that _________.” Then ensure you follow through and address it from both perspectives.