Keys to a Stress-Free Mother's Day

Mother's Day is supposed to be a day to honor and celebrate the efforts of your mother or stepmother.  But for many of us, the holiday can seem like a chore and emotional torture at worst. 

Here are three of the most common "Mother-Adult Child" scenarios in families on Mother's Day. See if they sound like what you're used to.  I've provided solutions for each situation.

Scenario #1:  Cindy gets aggravated when she spends time with her mother.

Cindy feels she has to limit what she calls her "proximity" to her mother. Cindy describes her mother as a "black hole in space" where, if Cindy isn't careful, her mother's neediness will suck Cindy into her mother's life. Cindy is an only child. Her mom divorced Cindy's father when Cindy was very young. "My mom revolves her world around me," Cindy says.


Cindy suffers from what I call the "Favorite Child Syndrome", where the parent has a positive over-bond with the child. At first, it might seem wonderful to be the favorite.  You can do no wrong, you get the most privileges. All this favoritism comes with many strings attached, however. For example, these favorite children carry a huge emotional burden of having to be the parent's best friend, to justify a parent's bad marriage or relationship, or to fulfill a parent's thwarted dreams--that grew from their parent's disappointment in them!

Favorite children often grow up not appreciating all the sacrifices a parent has made and resenting the obligation to follow the parent's script, needs, and expectations.  When these children become adults, they sometimes can feel like "phonies" because they don't trust in their parent's over-praise and over-value of them.  Yet, these adult children feel entitled and expect others to love, honor, and obey them. It's not surprising, then, that Mother's Day for these adult children feels as though they are being pulled in the  two directions of gratitude and resentment.


If you have been lucky and unlucky enough to be a favorite child, here are some tips to help you feel better and act differently.

1. When your mother praises you, instead of basking in all the spotlight, make sure to say something good about your spouse, partner, or children.

2. Don't be the first to jump to please your mom when she complains about something. These moms can be very demanding, for example. They are the first to criticize the waiter or food. Instead of coming to the rescue immediately, say something that both acknowledges her unhappiness and gives her a directive.

3. Stay calm. Your agitation comes from both your resentment and your role of having to be your mom's Fix-It Now Child.

4. Remind yourself that you can be the source of your sense of self-worth--on your terms and not theirs.

Scenario #2:  Lisa and her twin brother Lionel can't tolerate their mom's nitpicking and criticism.

Lisa and Lionel know exactly what their mother is going to say whenever they get together. Lisa says, "She'll pick on my clothes, my hair and then move on to my career.  'Don't you want to settle down, have babies?' my mom asks." Lionel says that his mom hates his wife and keeps asking, "Are you really happy with her?" Lisa and Lionel feel a mix of obligation and dread when they are all together on Mother's Day. "We don't feel she even likes us," Lionel added.


Lisa and Lionel suffer from what I call the "Least Favorite Child Syndrome", where the parent has a negative over-bond with the child.  At first, it might seem horrible to be so unloved.  You can do no right in your parent's eyes, and even if you did do well, it can never measure up to your sibling. Like parents of favorite children, these rejecting parents also over-invest emotionally in the child. However, it's when the child does not fulfill the parent's needs that the parent's connection to the child becomes negative.  And, as in parents of favorite children, these disappointed parents raise the children with scripts that stem from the parents' unresolved issues with their parents.

Least favorite children often grow up feeling like a "disappointment" to their parents.  These adults can harbor a low sense of self-worth and fear failure so much that they become risk-adverse.  They often chase after love and choose rejecting partners. The family frequently regards them as "losers, lost souls, or rebels."  Rebels, however, can be quite successful. The good side of being the least favorite is that there can be more latitude to become your own self since your parent has, in essence, said:  "I won't invest too much in you emotionally."


If you have been lucky and unlucky enough to be the least favorite child, here are some tips to help you get through Mother's Day.

1. Get it in your head that your parents' words and treatment to you is about them--not you! Your parental negativity gives you a firsthand feel for what it must have been like for your parents to be raised by your grandparents.

2. Don't work hard to get a "good word" from your parent.  Don't chase love.

3. Act unpredictably--but in a positive way.  If you tend to be late or to forget a gift, show up on time with an appropriate gift.

4. Don't sulk--even if you feel it. Your family probably expects you to be unhappy.

5. Re-cast your parent's negativity in a positive light.  This action makes your parents feel better about both themselves and you. For example, casually mention that on this holiday you are more aware than before how much your parents have taught you.  You might say that you were glad you learned from trial and error and that you like having certain fond memories or certain characteristics of your parents, especially mom. Name one or two good things.

6. Ask your parent for advice--especially when they criticize you about something specific.  Yes, do it.  This action says, "I welcome and value your help." It also puts the hot potato of unhappiness where it belongs--in their lap.  Many parents get tongue-tied and say things such as, "Well, I don't know..."

7. Do not get defensive or hot-headed. Don't storm away from the table. Again, respond to their negative comment into a request:  "Thanks. What do you think I should do?"

Scenario #3:  Sharon can't bear Mothers Day.  She splits the time between her biological mother and her stepmother. 

Sharon says that by the time Mother's Day is over, she doesn't know who she is, which mother loves her--or which one to love.  Her two moms are so different.  "It messes with my identity."


Sharon is suffering from what I call "Too Many Cooks in the Identity Kitchen Syndrome." When children live in or are raised in separate households, they must figure out quickly who the major players are in their lives now. They have to determine twice how decisions, discipline, fun, and love are expressed. 

Sons with fathers and step-fathers and daughters with mothers and step-mothers must learn how and who to be and how to cherry-pick positive characteristics, values, and interests from each same-sex parent. 

Some adult children look back on their family life and describe it as a confusing power-play amongst opposites.  As adults, this legacy can  impair career development and love relationships.

Difficulties in becoming your own self arise when:

  • Step-parents and biological parents have an even share in care giving
  • Parents divorced when you were young
  • Your same-sex parent and step-parent are very different from each other

Adult children scramble to figure out what kind of person to be. Even if the parents agreed on key areas such as discipline and goals, the adult child can still feel as though there are two separate worlds vying for their emotional loyalty. Holidays can be very exhausting and confusing.


Here are some tips to make this emotional juggling act easier.

  1. Take responsibility and offer your family some options about what would make you and your parent or step-parent have a happy holiday. For example, for some adult children, celebrating with all the parents is easier.  You don't feel "torn" between houses. Or, you could tell everyone that you'd rather celebrate with each one separately.

  2. Ask each parent/step-parent to give you a wish list of affordable gifts they would like to receive.  Learn, for instance, how they feel about gift cards. Some people love them—they get to shop in their favorite stores, while others feel they are to impersonal.

  3. Before you meet with the family, write down and say to yourself these words:  I am not a child.  I don't live in two homes emotionally any longer,  I don't have to worry about being loyal or disloyal. Underneath all my parents' problems is a desire for me to be me—and happy.

  4. Don't get stuck on having to celebrate Mother's Day—or any holiday—on the exact day.  Get creative.  Come up with your own traditions of new dates.

  5. Don't forget to send cards.  And don't mail them late.