When children reach young adulthood and long to share holidays like Thanksgiving with a significant other, it can be a bittersweet milestone for parents. They may be sad to see an empty chair at their table or wince when the person they open their home to doesn’t quite fit in.
For Debbie Hitchcock, a Cincinnati, Ohio, mom of four, it stung when her oldest child, then 16, first asked to bring his girlfriend to Thanksgiving.
“My first reaction was, why would we do that?” she recalled. “This is family time. The hurt is ‘you care more about her than you do about me.’”
As she contemplated his request, he changed his mind, saying he would go to his girlfriend’s home instead, which triggered a new rush of maternal anguish.
“It was like, whoa, whoa, I don’t want you to go somewhere else,” Hitchcock remembers, adding that the teens ended up eating at the girlfriend’s house before feasting at the Hitchcock home.
Though the issue of where offspring spend that fourth Thursday in November may seem trivial, family psychologist Brad Sachs calls it “a tremendously big deal.”
“It carries tremendous metaphorical weight because it signifies that things are changing and the family needs to evolve,” he said. “It signifies certain endings that are painful for parents or grandparents to deal with, but those endings create possibilities for new beginnings.”
For teens and young adults, Sachs said, asking to slip away is a healthy way of testing the family’s resilience.
“What he or she is saying is, ‘Does this family have the capacity to demonstrate some elasticity or flexibility as I and my siblings begin to move out in the world, or is this going to be an airless dungeon in which we’re all consigned to?’” said Sachs, who is in private practice in Columbia, Md.
The most important things mothers and fathers should do is acknowledge their child’s move toward independence, regardless of whether they allow a deviation to the traditional turkey day routine, or not.
“It’s more recognizing the depth of the question rather than the specific answer that makes the difference,” he said.
When it feels hard to let go, Sachs urges parents to take pride in their children’s development, and share their feelings with their children.
“Our job is to parent, to be there, and to be left,” Sachs said. “And the initial strivings toward separation or moving on are the seeds of growth and an affirmation of what a successful job they’ve done as parents.”
Welcoming a new person into the Thanksgiving mix can also be hard. Hitchcock remembers some tough years when guests she didn’t care for were brought home, though she always tried to make them feel welcome.
The new relationships that young adults form are important ones, and wanting to spend time together on the holiday is a good thing, says Dr. Robi Ludwig, psychotherapist and TODAY contributor, though some territorial issues may arise.
“You’re saying this person is important to me and my family is important to me and I want us all to connect,” she said.
Bringing a love interest home can help your child see how well that person gets along with the family. “It makes the situation more real,” Ludwig says. “A child will see their significant other in a new way based on how they interact with that person’s family.”
And while some families may be more closed, others are more open to guests. “They like the idea of adding a new person,” she said. “It adds energy. It’s interesting and you get to learn more about your child, too.”
To make Thanksgiving work for her kids, who now range from 20 to 27, Hitchcock schedules her feast time around their needs, so they usually all end up back at her house. And, she makes sure her table features a favorite treat, like turtle pie, that her kids won’t want to miss.
Still, while Hitchcock, operations director for a nonprofit Christian organization, wants her kids to flourish in new relationships, she wants them to want to return home too.
“I want to create an environment where my kids want to be with me,” she said, “and that includes letting go.”