James O. Henman, Ph.D.
Psychological Associates
706 13th Street
Modesto, CA 95354



For information on individual Therapeutic Coaching sessions with Dr. Henman, you can either call or e-mail your questions to

Focus, Dec-Jan 88-89
How Adult Children Struggle to Have That Picture Perfect Holiday
James O. Henman, Ph.D.

Jean Reeh, B.S.

    One of the cardinal features of most adult children is their underlying search for normalcy. This quest tends to permeate every aspect of their lives. Those who work with adult children or know them intimately can recognize their common patterns around Christmas and other "festive" times when they often seem depressed, agitated or irritated for no apparent reason. It is difficult for those who have grown up in healthy, stable families to comprehend what Christmas can symbolize and the associations that can surround this holiday for adult children.

    Children who grow up in dysfunctional homes often turn to television to see how other people (normal people) live. They decide that when they grow up they will have a Christmas like the Brady's, Crosby's and Keatons. Everyone will be happy and close. There will be no conflicts, plenty of money for wonderful gifts, and time to create special decorations and treats for the whole family. Somehow, everyone is able to gather in love and harmony to share this special family time together. Although it may be true, that such experiences do happen in real life, the vast majority of Christmas experiences in today’s culture fall short of this idealistic picture. How far short depends on the family into which they were born. If, as children, the holiday atmosphere was punctuated with tension and unpredictable conflict, then it is only natural for these associations to have a significant impact on their adult experiences of Christmas. When these contaminated experiences come up against their inflated expectations, the contrast can create a feeling of profound disappointment, or other debilitating emotional reactions. In contrast to Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver, the following are examples of common experiences taken from the lives of our adult child clients.

    John, 42, with a wife and two children, was at the height of his professional and financial success. He came to therapy because of a recurrent depression, which always seemed to occur in late November or early December and would usually last into February. He reported a growing apprehension and an overpowering feeling of emptiness as he approached Christmas. John’s father had been abandoned at age 3. His father also suffered physical and emotional abuse. These traumas colored John’s family experience of Christmas. When he was growing up, John would begin to feel the normal childhood excitement of Christmas, only to have his father ridicule these feelings and demand the spotlight himself. This left no room for anyone else’s experience. John would feel humiliated, guilty and invalidated. John unknowingly brought these feelings into his own family.

    Mary, 23, had been married in February before her first panic attack, which happened on Christmas Eve. She was so overwhelmed with anxiety that she needed brief hospitalization. Mary was found to be an adult child, and was able to finally remember a recurring pattern that seemed to play out every Christmas Eve during her childhood. The ritual would begin when her father would arrive home after work, already heavily intoxicated, and continue drinking. He would become violent, often knocking the dinner off the table and breaking presents. He would scream at Mary and her sister that they did not appreciate how "good" they had it, and that they did not deserve anything for Christmas. He would become increasingly maudlin and pitiful. Mary would feel guilt, shame, rage, fear and helplessness. These painful feelings had been pushed away when Mary left home, and she had actually "forgotten" this by the time she married Larry.

    Janet, a 30-year-old adult child, was married and the mother of three small children when she came for therapy. As the holidays neared, she was aware of growing feelings of hostility and fatigue. Janet disclosed that she had been reared in a very dogmatic, rigid, religious family, and her mother had been a model "martyr." Her mother had done everything that she "should" do for her family. She cooked, shopped, and took part in school and church activities. She felt tired, resentful and put upon. She became extremely irritable with her children, and the family would usually "celebrate" Christmas under a cloud of tension and resentment. Janet came to learn that her inner child was experiencing the same pressures and demands that had robbed her mother and the rest of the family of joy or pleasure during the Christmas season.

    Although John, Mary, and Janet came from very different environments and had different holiday experiences as children, they did have one thing in common. All three had dealt with their painful associations around Christmas by blocking these feelings from consciousness. The familiar coping strategy is at the heart of the personality structure of adult children. They had all seen how the Christmas experience "should" be from television, and the contrast was more than they could tolerate. Their unconscious decision to "forget" was the best option open at that time, and yet the cumulative cost of continuing to live out that decision as adults is staggering.

    The first step in their road to recovery is to accept that their feelings, however painful and undesirable, are valid and need to be treated with respect. They need to understand that the source of their feelings may have little or nothing to do with their environment, and yet the result of these feelings remaining unresolved can effect the present.

    In Cognitive Perceptual Reconstruction, we teach our clients to use these painful feelings to recapture "forgotten" scenes from the past, and bring them into conscious awareness. As they learn to allow the pain to float up into a visual scene, they are able to make contact with their inner child. They are taught to supply the resources necessary for their inner child to begin the healing process. They learn to enter the past as an adult, bringing nurturing and respectful support to their inner child. This new internal relationship allows adult children to begin building new associations and experiences.

    Our clients learn the unrealistic nature of their expectations for the holidays, and come to realize that normal and perfect are not the same. They begin to appreciate their current level of skills as a starting point in building new experiences. They learn to celebrate each small step forward as they create more healthy rituals and expectations for Christmas. They learn to accept that the road to their recovery is the process of shifting from "normal" to healthy.