It’s not surprising that many parents speak of post-holiday blues, both for themselves and sometimes for their children. The confluence of factors — holiday preparation, expectations, shopping, overspending, overdoing, entertaining, anticipation, and exhaustion — can easily undermine one’s emotional health. For some, the expectations far outweigh the reality, bringing disappointment, regret or sadness. The letdown might surprise us, although some report it’s become an annual “tradition.” 

Getting together with family and friends you don’t see often may bring additional stress for some, particularly for parents feeling chronically judged and criticized for their children’s behavior and their parenting approach. One parent described the traditional family gathering at her parents’ home as being the quintessential nightmare, yet still unable to break away. Her family members observe her parenting, making comments and intervening in her interactions with her children. She has a particularly spirited child, who is “more,” with whom she often clashes and feels inadequate to effectively handle. Being around her family exacerbates his behavior and her frustration, brewing increasing meltdowns with her angry reactions. Thus, the holiday celebrations are fraught with tension and sadness for her. Consequently, she describes the letdown after the holidays as quite significant. 

When we take inventory, to determine whether our expectations were met, or whether we could do things differently “next time,” what will the outcome be? Disappointment, sadness, a sense of regret or emptiness, or an appreciation for a “job well done”? Special memories emerge from whatever positive holiday rituals we follow, being with family and dear friends. For some, however, it’s a very different experience....

One parent shared her story: “I was totally irrational during the holidays, with unrealistic expectations for my children, as well as for other family members. I stormed around the house with increasing anxiety, knowing my parents and siblings were arriving in a few days, barking orders at my children: ‘Clean up now!’ ‘Put this away.’ ‘Get with the program!’ Then one morning my daughter started crying with these commands. I snapped, ‘Stop crying or I’ll really give you something to cry about!’ I suddenly heard my own mother, who often said that to me, just before a severe spanking.”

Many parents carry a legacy they cannot shake, despite putting great geographic distance between themselves and their parents. They might want to overcome a negative way of reacting that has been passed along by their parents. It’s challenging to erase what they learned in their own families, despite a strong commitment to avoid doing what was done by their parents. When they’re under stress, especially when their children aren’t behaving to their expectations, that’s exactly what happens. They get triggered, reverting to the negative lessons taught by their own parents when they were very young. 

Children don’t “arrive” with manuals, providing comprehensive information about what to expect, how to address every challenge and, most of all, how to be the best parent we want to be. Of course, we all want what’s best for our children. Those who experienced a childhood of parental extreme reactions, of trauma, abuse or neglect, plan to create new ideas and approaches when they become parents, intending to be truly self-made. Yet we learn almost everything from how we were parented, for better or worse. 

Your legacy may not be awful, with a mother who might have been loving, sometimes even too loving, suffocating you with her neediness.Your dad may have been an excellent provider for the family, with a strong work ethic, while also emotionally detached and cold. Consider what changes could make a difference, as it’s the best gift you can give yourself and your children. One parent said she grew up in an overall loving family, although given her parents weren’t perfect, she’s realized she adopted a few negative habits. This parent is optimally positioned to help herself. However, the parents who use punishment more than they want or know they’re being too remote are the ones who need more help in breaking the cycle. 

When you have a disturbing interaction with your child (at any age, even grown children), try detaching to “play it back.” That way, you might hear something that one of your parents may have said or done, something you vowed never to say or do. Simply understanding the connection between what triggered you from your past and how you felt as a child is a good starting place. You can then begin to monitor yourself, being more conscious of what happens and the emotional root of your reaction, to initiate changes. After practice with more “self-corrections,” you can soften the sharp edges of that trigger, healing and intentionally parenting the way you want. 

Someone might say, “Just do what comes naturally,” yet what comes naturally could be judging, yelling, nagging, threatening, bribing, punishing. Combine that with a large dose of guilt, and what comes naturally is not the best path! First, being forgiving of yourself is important, since none of us were taught the skills. Many never learned how to be warm, nurturing, or positive parents. Thus, each challenge, every impasse with your child, can be a battle, a power struggle of wills. 

Whatever changes you make, whether with young or grown children, there will be times you can fall into the same pattern, hearing yourself threatening and critical to a daughter or son. Ask yourself if your behavior is getting what you want. Does it remind you of your mother or father? Can you remember how you felt as a child, when you were threatened or criticized? What can you do differently to get what you want, to connect with your child?

We all have a legacy, good or bad. What we do with that is our choice. After spending time during the holidays with family that evokes strong emotions, reopening wounds that haven’t fully healed, it’s understandable there’s a letdown. If there are post-holiday blues, entering a new year offers a chance for new beginnings, fresh commitments. It’s never too late to make changes that ensure deep connection and healing. Whatever your legacy, you can be the parent you want to be by reaching out for support. Wishing you peace and happiness in 2017.