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.