Navigating the Holidays with Emotionally Immature Parents: A Guide to Self-Care and Boundaries
The holiday season often evokes images of warmth, love, and togetherness. However, for those with emotionally immature parents, this time of year can be particularly challenging. Navigating family gatherings and managing expectations can be emotionally taxing and bring up feelings of longing and grief. The work of being connected your your own wisest self as an adult child of an emotionally immature parent is a long road and there are no quick fixes to healing from one of our most fundamental relationships. That said, I've written a guide to help navigate the holidays with emotional maturity, boundaries, and self-care when dealing with parents who may not share the same emotional resilience.
1. Set Realistic Expectations:
Recognize that emotionally immature parents may struggle with expressing emotions or providing the support you desire. Setting realistic expectations helps manage disappointment and allows you to focus on creating positive experiences for yourself.
Instead of going into the holidays or specific situation with the mindset of hoping and preparing for the best, consider checking in with what your history is with them. Are they likely to bring up embarrassing memories of you as a child in front of other family members? If so, be honest with yourself about that possibility and prepare for the worst case scenario by coming up with a coping survival plan if it happens.
2. Prioritize Self-Care:
The holidays can be emotionally draining, especially when dealing with challenging family dynamics. Prioritize self-care by scheduling moments of feeling grounded and calm. What are activities you do that help you to feel rooted, grounded or connected to your wisest self? What does that feel like in your body? Do you know when you don't feel that way in your body? Practicing self-care can mean deepening the relationship you have with yourself and listening to your body's messages. If you get "fuzzy brain" when you're not grounded, you can listen to your body by ending the conversation and participating in activities that help you get back to a grounded state.
3. Establish Boundaries:
Clearly define and communicate your boundaries with your emotionally immature parents. Whether it’s limiting the duration of visits or specifying topics that are off-limits, setting boundaries protects your emotional well-being.
Remember, boundaries are not what others need to do for you. Boundaries are what you are going to do to prioritize your mental health. If your boundary doesn’t include an action step for you but does include an action you want your parent to take, it may not be a boundary and actually a form of control. Find a way to reframe your boundary to give yourself the control back. Waiting around on someone to do something for you only sets you up for disappointment and resentment. Take back your power!
4. Seek Support Outside the Family:
Connect with friends, support groups, or a therapist who can offer understanding and guidance. Having a support system outside the family can provide a safe space to share your feelings and receive validation.
Side note: Be picky about who you open up to. There’s nothing quite like being able to openly talk about the struggles you’re having with your emotionally immature parent with someone else who can relate to having a similar dynamic with their parents. It can also be incredibly invalidating to open up to someone about your experience who doesn’t understand and says something hurtful or shaming. Don’t be afraid to be selective about who you let in.
5. Practice Emotional Detachment:
Understand that you cannot control your parents’ emotional immaturity. Some people find it helpful to practice emotional detachment by accepting their parent for who they are. Detaching emotionally doesn’t mean that you condone their behavior or forgive them for what they've done. It also doesn't mean you need to cut off your relationship to them completely; it means finding a balance that protects your emotions. Being connected to your body and listening to the amount of distance you need from your parent can help with reparenting yourself.
6. Create Your Own Traditions:
If family gatherings become emotionally overwhelming, consider creating your own holiday traditions. This could involve spending time with chosen family or engaging in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.
7. Express Yourself through Art or Writing:
Channel your emotions into creative outlets such as art or writing. Journaling can also be a therapeutic way to process your feelings and gain clarity on how to navigate complex family dynamics. You can do these activities with a specific prompt in mind such as "what it feels like when I'm with my parent vs when I'm with my best friend" or start a timer for 10 or 30 minutes to freely write or draw whatever comes to mind.
9. Explore Therapy:
Consider seeking professional help to navigate the complexities of dealing with emotionally immature parents. Therapy provides a safe space to explore your emotions and develop coping strategies. As mentioned above, being a child of an emotionally immature parent can show up in a multitude of different ways and the work is often not so straight forward. While coping skills and reading can be helpful, some might find that it feels more like a band-aid for a broken limb. If this is you, don't hesitate to find a therapist who works with CPTSD, complex trauma and/or emotionally immature parents.
Navigating the holidays with emotionally immature parents requires a combination of self-awareness, self-care, and setting healthy boundaries. Remember that it’s okay to prioritize yourself during this season and it's okay to have tricky feelings about your parents or the holidays. Give yourself the gift of self compassion and curiosity while navigating through a difficult situation.
Lists and lists
And lists and lists and lists --
My head is filled with a million to do’s.
The dr appointments for me, my kids and pets--
Every second, every hour is planned to the tea,
Yet somehow I have another 20 appointments that I still haven’t yet made.
Don’t forget to make their lunch tonight for school in the morning--
She likes pb&j with chips and a pickle.
A dill pickle.
A Grillo brand dill pickle.
Whose birthday party are we supposed to go to this weekend?
Do I have the mom’s number? Should I ask her what to get her?
Did I remember to tell my husband?
Will he be upset that we have to go to another kid party this weekend?
When should I tell him? 15 minutes after dinner?
What is for dinner?
Did I remember to get the butter?
One kid has a tummy bug and only the BRAT diet will do.
A protein, a fruit, a --
We ran out of veggies.
Write it on the list-
The never ending list.
Speaking of lists-
What do we need for tomorrow?
Lunches, backpacks, the class snack for one kid and outfits for both but wait--
What is the weather?
Does he have a jacket that still fits?
Where are his jackets?
Oh, at the bottom of this closet pit.
45 minutes later and I discover,
2T is the largest size he has.
He’s a 3T now, sometimes 4T.
Should I make an overnight Prime purchase?
Never mind, too late.
Target has same day pickup, right?
Looks like they have 1 more jacket in his size.
Maybe I can pick it up on the way to get the cat food.
Did I remember to reach out to my friend about her sick cat?
That was 2 weeks ago-
I hope she doesn’t hate me.
that pelvic floor pain of mine-
What did she say my exercises were this time?
2 sets of 10 or 2 sets of 5?
I need to put up the turkey handprints they made from school.
If I was a good mom, I’d have individual bins for each child with categorized folders I could put this stuff in.
Where did our neighbor get hers again?
Oh wow- that’s a lot of different bins!
The turkey handprints will be fine in this pile,
The one I keep in our room in the closet.
One of these days I will organize this space
And turn it into a cloffice for work.
I love the cute things they bring home from school--
I can’t believe my oldest starts kinder in the fall!
Do I know any other moms whose kids are going to that school?
It has the largest campus of all of the district’s schools--
Will she be overwhelmed
Or get lost amongst her peers?
What is the teacher retention rate there?
Does it have a Spanish program,
Or a program for the gifted?
That other school in the neighborhood 5 minutes away
Is supposed to be better in almost every way.
Am I a bad mom for sending her here?
Why wasn’t I louder about this being a big deal?
The day we said yes to this house,
I remember my husband said he would be open to talking about it when that day was finally here.
The time is here if I had to guess.
Kindergarten is in 9 months-
Perhaps I will bring it up.
“Can’t you ever just be happy with where we are and what we have?”
Is all I hear.
Everyone is preaching gratitude
and needing to be thankful for what & who we have.
But gratitude is hard to find when all day long,
you’re keeping track of what you don’t have yet
and all the things you haven’t done yet and are behind.
Why do others like to automatically assume
That when it comes to moms asking for support,
That what she really needs is more gratitude?
I think the answer comes from the direction of what she’s asking.
Support means energy from outside of her
Is needed to fill her back up again.
Gratitude must come from inside.
Oh, I get it now.
You don’t want to do it.
Wouldn’t it be nice?
If she just kept quiet and never complained?
If she never needed support
And you never had to deal
With the never ending lists and lists
Of things she needs to do.
Maybe it’s the Millennial in me, but I’m an avid Miley Cyrus fan. Her Tom Petty cover, "Wildflowers" came on a playlist I was listening to this morning and it reminded me so much of the healing that goes on in therapy. If you haven't heard it yet, I highly recommend listening to it on a day when you need a heartfelt song to belt out to.
This time of year can be weird for those of us who are working on changing generational dynamics. Maybe we were the peace keeper in our family or the therapist who helped calm our parents down as kids. Maybe we've seen these patterns show up in our adult lives and we're in therapy or working hard otherwise to not carry the weight of those behaviors and generational patterns in order to heal.
During this time of year, we might find ourselves spending more time both alone and with others. With that, we might notice that we feel pulled to mask and pretend everything is fine with certain people or in certain situations, to accept an invitation or get pulled into a conversation with someone somewhere where we feel small and unimportant, or keep engaging with people or situations in our life that make us feel less than our best self. We might notice the ways in which we still need to wear our masks and armor in order to show up and feel comfortable or safe.
On the flip side, as we heal, we might also notice ways in which our masks and armor can no longer be put back on. One way this shows up: we might notice that a relationship in our life is slowly fading/becoming more distant, not because we are doing something wrong but maybe we’ve outgrown the old ways in which we would mask/armor up around that person. Or maybe we’ve become more “sensitive” and no longer afraid of letting our emotions just be, causing others to be more uncomfortable around us. Again, you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re just feeling. You simply can no longer put the armor back on. Maybe you've done enough work that it hurts more to carry the armor and masks than it does to take them off and shoulder the weight of the difficult emotions.
If you’re at the beginning stage of healing and taking off your masks and armor: know that it gets easier. Relationships might shift a lot and you might feel shitty and grieve a lot in the process. But it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. My advice for getting through this process is to take time to grieve and stay curious about taking the armor for as long as you need before you take it off entirely if needed. Give yourself permission to take it on and off when needed, especially in an environment that doesn't feel safe to take it off.
When you're ready, notice what it feels like to take it off when you're around people who make you feel good. Our bodies help protect us by paying attention to the situations that could put us in harm's way but we often forget to remind our bodies what it feels like when we are in a place of safety. Remember that healing isn't linear and it's okay if we need to mask around certain people/environments for the rest of our lives even. I think the most important piece of masking and unmasking is developing awareness around when we are doing it and not doing it. It's about self-awareness, self-understanding and self-compassion for the ways in which our bodies have protected us all these years.
Lastly, if you need this reminder: life is supposed to feel uncomfortable at times. If it’s been comfortable up until you chose to go on this journey of self-awareness and growth, know that this pain might just be about you choosing yourself over repeating generational cycles. Healing feels uncomfortable when you choose to take off your masks.