The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

Holiday Gatherings Rekindle Old Family Dynamics

Holidays can provide opportunties for adult children and parents to grow closer.


Mary and Todd spent several idyllic days prior to Thanksgiving visiting their twenty-six year old daughter Lisa. The day before Thanksgiving their twenty-two year old son Tom arrived. Within an hour, Mary and Lisa were fighting:
On the way from the airport, the family stopped for lunch. Lisa ordered a dip and chips as an appetizer and fried chicken with fries as an entre while commenting that she'd burned 400 calories when working out earlier that day. Mary interrupted, saying that after the workout Lisa splurged on a chocolate croissant. Lisa then interrupted her mother, explaining with anger,"What I eat is my business. It is none of your business. Stay out of my business."
Mary, shocked by Lisa's response and shaken by the intensity of her fury, withdrew. She said little throughout the remainder of the meal. Her children began bantering with each other as Tom joked about being their mother's favorite son.
Mary's discomfort grew, knowing in that moment he was correct.
After lunch, the family split up, riding in two cars to Lisa's home. Mary rode with Tom who immediately inquired about his mother's tension. Mary knew then that her anger permeated the family and probably provoked the mealtime teasing about favoritism. She knew she had to discuss soon the incident with her daughter. Otherwise she knew her tension would escalate throughout the visit and impact negatively on the family.
Discussing this incident in her therapy, Mary reported shock and fury with her daughter. "The visit had been terrific. Lisa's sudden rage stunned me. It seemed to come out of no-where. I felt unsafe around her, not knowing when I would be attacked next. I was boiling with rage at how she talked to me. All I was trying to say was that she had not justified the croissant that morning and she not have to justify what she ordered for lunch."
Mary described to her therapist the conversation she and Lisa had had later that afternoon. First, Mary set boundaries, insisting that Lisa treat her with respect. Second, Mary acknowledged feeling unsafe in Lisa's presence. Third, Mary appreciated Lisa's honesty and willingness to engage with her.
According to Mary, Lisa first responded defensively and unloaded more anger. She characterized the tone of her mother's voice as critical when, during phone conversations, Lisa reported she was making pasta for dinner. Lisa perceived her mother as looking disapproving when seeing her eat rolls with dinner. "I love carbs! They are my comfort food. You are so thin. Even my friends comment about how disciplined you are in your diet," she said tearfully.
Initially, Mary wanted to defend herself, feeling the victim of her daughter's wrath. But Mary resisted the urge, sensing Lisa's competitiveness with her. Mary could then acknowledge possible truths in Lisa's perceptions. Mary was concerned about Lisa's diet, remembering her misery when she was overweight. Mary recalled Lisa's complaint that her mother had silently watched the weight gain and never offered constructive intervention. Mary reflected how hard Lisa had worked at losing weight and wanted to support her maintenance. At the end of the discussion, both Mary and Lisa felt heard by the other and acknowledged the difficulty of this terrain.

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While the content of this tension may be unique to Mary and Lisa, the dynamic - old tensions between parents and children that re-surface as families gather during holidays - is not unique. The following guidelines can help families grow from uneasy relationships rather than have more tension created.

1) Fights between parents and children can foster healthy growth for all parties and lead to better parent/child relationships. To accomplish this, the fighting parties must treat each other respectfully, be willing to listen to each other, and work at not fueling the disagreement. The desire for genuine resolution must be more important than winning the fight.
2) Confronting the source of unease in close proximity to the provocation is critical. The more time that passes, the greater the likelihood that resentments will grow and the parties will become more defensive. This makes successful resolution, as described above, more unlikely.
3) Whether you are the parent or child, knowing and being honest with yourself enables successful resolution to the conflict. For example, Mary accepted her fury and the impact of the incident on the whole family. She experienced her son's input as supportive, not critical. She valued her relationship with her daughter and did not want to risk feeling unsafe in her presence. She had the courage to pursue her daughter and was receptive to Lisa's point of view.

Lisa's behavior also contributed to the healthy outcome. She accepted she had treated her mother disrespectfully and knew that to do so again would potentially mar their relationship. Lisa accepted the importance of better managing feelings her mother might provoke.

Tension between parents and children, even adult children, is inevitable as children work at forging their own identities and having lives separate from their parents. When families gather, especially around holidays which stimulates old fantasies of perfect parent/child love, the potential for disappointment and ensuing conflict increases. At these times, it is important to know that important growth can flow from such conflict.

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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