Jessica Grose’s essay in last week’s New York Times offers “sanity-preserving advice” for what she describes as the “inevitable holiday regression” that will strike adult children during the upcoming seasonal family reunions. In an article titled, Your Mom Is Destined to Annoy You, Grose, editor of the NYTimes.com Parenting Section, addresses the documented ubiquitous, dreaded tension from family visits that inevitably arise “like clockwork by the third day.” Citing academic research by Professor Kira Birditt at the University of Michigan, 94 percent of adult children report some levels of strife when interacting with their parents.
Moreover, Grose writes, adult children are doomed never to grow beyond being treated as a child, as substantiated by a full-fledged syndrome characterizing the parent-adult child relationship:
“Psychologists even have a term to describe the way we fall back into predictable, maddening behavior patterns when we’re with our family of origin. It’s called family systems theory — the notion that families have an equilibrium, and each person has a fixed role that “is in service of keeping the family system intact,” said Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. So whatever your established role is — whether you’re the appeaser, or the family clown, or the petulant one — you’re going to be thrown right back there the second you walk through the door of your childhood home.”
And should the grown child now be a parent, Grose further cautions us on how to brace for the expected criticism of his or her child-rearing practices from the parents/grandparents. Fortunately, Grose offers tips from experts to mitigate the confrontation:
So, how do you get through the holidays with your folks without losing your… mind? Here’s some sanity-preserving advice…
It’s not a question of if the regression is going to happen, it’s when. Dr. Lakshmin advised that you do some mental work before visiting your family so that you can avoid triggering your worst behaviors. Ask yourself: Are there particular topics of conversation or physical places that tend to send your family into a tizzy? And then try to avoid those topics and places…
You will need an escape hatch from time to time. “Whether this means hiding out in the bathroom for 10 minutes to cool down, structuring the length of visits or springing for a hotel rather than staying in your parents’ guest room,” make sure you’re somehow creating a space where you can get some emotional distance from your family, said Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author… I always make sure I can exercise in the morning when I’m with family — it gives me a break from them and also is a good conduit for ambient rage.
Jessica Grose highlights an unhealthy and potentially harmful perspective on what should be a foundational and essential relationship in society. From a Jewish viewpoint, respecting and honoring parents is a central Torah principal – one of the Ten Commandments that G-d Himself proclaimed to the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai. Why is this mitzvah listed alongside belief in G-d, observing Shabbat, not murdering or stealing, etc.? The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the reason for honoring parents is gratitude: “One should appreciate the fact that his parents are the source of his very existence in this world, and it is therefore appropriate for him to act as respectfully and beneficially as he can. Besides having brought him into the world, they also expended tremendous effort in raising him as a child.”
A second reason to honor parents reflects upon our relationship to G-d. The Kli Yakar writes:
Although honoring one’s father and mother is essentially an obligation between people, it is also related to G-d since there are three partners in [the creation of] a person: G-d, the father and the mother. If I respect my father and mother who are the ones who created my physical body – which will eventually wither and die – how much more I should honor my Father in Heaven, who granted me with the superior component, my eternal soul!
Thus, by honoring our parents we come to honor G-d, too.
The Abarbanel provides a third reason why honoring parents is critical: Parents (and grandparents, and if you are so fortunate to have great-grandparents), are esteemed links in the chain going back to Mount Sinai. A prerequisite to accepting traditions from our ancestors is honoring our parents, the carriers of those traditions.
The Talmud teaches in tractate Kiddushin that when grandparents teach their grandchildren Torah, it is as if the latter heard G-d speak the Ten Commandments at Sinai 3300 hundred years ago! Thus, the grandparents also make a pivotal impact on helping forge their grandchildren’s Jewish identity.
Notwithstanding the ideal to honor parents, Grose’s concern for the possibility of friction with them is universally understood and widely experienced. However, how one approaches and diffuses such potentially heated interactions is key. From a Torah perspective, both parents and children are expected to work throughout their lives on improving their character traits benefiting all interpersonal relationships. For example, the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers teaches us that chesed (acting kindly and generously) is one of the three pillars of life (in addition to Torah study and building a relationship with G-d). We strive to avoid harmful speech and anger, and improving behavior and character are common themes in Jewish schools, synagogues and the Jewish community.
From a Jewish perspective, a child—young or old—always needs to honor and respect his or her parents, even if it is a challenge. In parallel, the Shulchan Aruch Code of Jewish Law cautions parents from acting overbearingly. Moreover, parents need to learn how to transition from active parenting to hands-off parenting as children mature – especially married children – to empower them with the independence, love, confidence and skills to thrive. And then, if after incorporating this Jewish outlook proves ineffective because of especially difficult, negative or abusive parents or children, then Grose’s suggestions of limiting the family visits, etc. would be considered.
Finally, for Observant Jews, family gatherings, especially on holidays – Shabbos, Festivals, and now Chanukah – are sought after and are precious opportunities for bonding, love and inspiration for children, parents and grandparents alike. As I once heard Rabbi Mordechai Becher comment years ago, “There is rarely a generation gap among Observant Jews!” Just join any intergenerational Shabbos table, amidst the delicious food and songs, are animated discussions of life and Jewish philosophy where there is welcome participation and interaction by all.
This week, when the Chanukah candles are lit we recite, Blessed are You our G-d who made miracles for our forefathers in those days and this time. With great appreciation, on the first of the eight nights, we affirm the overwhelming kindness of G-d: Blessed are You G-d Who kept us alive to reach this season. As the candles burn, the grandparents begin to share, and yes, retell – for who knows how many times – their own miraculous stories of how they survived the Holocaust, World War II, the Israeli Wars, and anti-semitism, with their children and grandchildren still in awe, reabsorbing the lessons. The children and grandchildren then follow with their own inspiring stories and insights, in the glow of the Chanukah menorah. And at the end of the visit, children and parents alike look forward to the next time, whether it be Shabbos, Purim, Pesach, or even the welcome casual visits during the week.
The Ohr HaChaim writes (Vayikra 19:3) the way you treat your parents is the way your children will treat you. If parental visits are viewed and discussed negatively, that attitude can boomerang when one’s own children mature and view in turn their family visits with disinterest at best, and contempt at worse.
Don’t expect change. The last thing to remember is that there won’t be a magical solution to your family trauma over the holidays, Dr. Lakshmin said. December is a stressful time — mental health professionals say it’s particularly hard on their patients — and it’s not the time to bring up old baggage and expect to work through it.
Here we should apply the wisdom of the Vilna Gaon, “The prime purpose of man’s life is to constantly strive to break his bad traits. Otherwise, what is life for?”
For an inspiring perspective on parent-child dynamics, see Rabbi Abraham Twerski MD’s, Generation After Generation.