For parents of young kids, the holidays can be all about capturing the seasonal magic. But for empty nesters — parents of grown kids who have flown the coop — the holidays can be a bit more difficult to navigate. Enter Lisa Heffernan of Grown & Flown, a community for parents of 15–25 year olds. (She’s also the co-author of a fantastic parenting book with the same name.) She told us all about how parents can prepare to welcome their kids back home and how to set reasonable expectations…
Katie Couric: So before welcoming your kids home, can you describe what parents go through just kind of briefly when they become empty nesters?
Lisa Heffernan: People underestimate how much of a change this is in parents’ lives — and in an adult’s lives. The change is really almost as big as when the kids arrived. Back then, we had to change the entire focus of our lives and how we spent our time and our priorities. We make those same changes when our kids leave our time. After they leave home, one of the biggest challenges is how much our relationship with them changes — and it’s going to change more and more for quite some time..
For those who are still getting used to empty nesters, how does it feel to have their kids coming home around the holidays?
It is beyond exciting. If the kids went away to college, they’ve been thinking about this since they dropped them off in September. If their kids have gone to work somewhere or entered basic training, it’s a date on our calendar that we just think about constantly. The notion of having all of our kids back under one roof together is deeply, deeply satisfying, and we look forward to it.
But it’s really important, before they get home, that we figure out how we’re going to accept the changes that are going to be in them. It can be a little scary to think how much they’ve changed: It can just be their independence, it can be their political views, or it can be their feelings around some of our family’s priorities. So we need to prepare ourselves psychologically for some of the acceptance that we’re going to need to do.
We also need to recognize that it’s an adult coming back into our home, and that we need to be okay with their choices because this person matters so much to us. So think about how that’s going to be, and how we’re going to manage expectations.
And on the opposite spectrum: Parents whose kids are out of the home for a while. What sort of feelings might they experience as they prepare for their adult children to come home?
That’s easier, because a lot of those first time changes had been made. They’ve adapted more. It’s important to think about these two things about this point of your parent-child relationship: For one, this is the longest relationship we’re going to have for that kid. That first relationship with 18 years long, and God willing, this will last many more decades of that.
Second thing: The ultimate goal is that we want our homes to be a place that they want to be — because now they have another home. They don’t need to come to our home in the way they once did. The dorm hasn’t just closed; they’re not kicked out for Thanksgiving weekend and there’s no food. They’re coming to us because they choose to, and we need to make that a place where they can feel purely themselves and be accepted entirely for who they are.
How can parents help make their home feel like that for their adult kids?
Some of the things they can do are about acceptance and being surrounded by people they love. But some of them are much smaller, like making sure that the foods that they loved so much are there to remind them of childhood. You can provide their mom’s cooking, the chance to visit their extended family and that feeling of being completely accepted.
And what would you say to parents who feel internalized pressure to make their kid’s stay absolutely perfect?
That is a big problem we hear about a lot. So here’s the thing: It wasn’t perfect for the first 18 years, so you’re trying to create something that never was. The first 18 years of raising kids is full of chaos, noise, imperfections and being frustrated with your teenagers — and your teenagers acting badly. There are high moments, low moments, and everything that makes family life.
When we have young adults, it’s very easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses. But it was not perfect then, and it will not be perfect now. Remember perfection never existed.
The second thing is to think about what is perfect — feeling the joy of family closeness. That you can create. For you, perfect might be about a great meal your family loved and always had, where instead of Mom cooking, it now the whole family in the kitchen together. So we have to step back for a second and remind ourselves that the things that stay with us is that feeling for your adult child. We need to reframe perfect.
And so how can parents establish some boundaries and rules with their adult kids when they’re home?
Every family has rules and every family has the way things are done. Those rules can be about alcohol. Those rules can be about religious attendance. Those rules can be about partners or sleeping arrangements. Many of these kinds of issues come up now with adult children, and we just have to lay out what we think really clearly — before they get home or as soon as they get home.
So, a few questions: How can parents establish boundaries? And what are the boundaries that we need to think about? We need to remember that there are other things in our kids’ lives that are important — friendships, attachments, and if they’re in a serious relationship of some sort — and take those into consideration.
But it’s important to think of the things that are non-negotiable in your family. If Christmas night services is non-negotiable, or if you know a certain dinner with your extended family is non-negotiable, lay that out in advance. Say, “These are the things I need you to do as a member of the family. I need these things to happen because your absence will be a big problem. Okay?” But then give on other things. The bottom line is that I want this to be my kid’s house, and I want this to feel like home for ever for them. The minute I say, “My house, my rules,” it’s not anymore. And if I lose that, I lose something really, really important.
Lastly, what are some ways that parents can connect with their adult kids when they’re home for the holidays?
Some of the things that bring us together: Music, food, religion, and larger family games. Actually, there is incredible research about game-playing. Board games have become a huge thing among college kids and young adults. It’s a great way to put phones down, snacks on the table, and connect as a family. Family movie nights can also be a way to connect. But the most important thing we can do is to listen to them share about their lives.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.