Holiday tips for the empty nester

For the empty nester, the holidays are often long-awaited, but they also can feel like an invasion for parents who have begun to reacquaint themselves with the joys of a neater home, a freer schedule and the absence of certain annoying behaviors.

"As much as you love them," said Natalie Caine, who is the founder of Empty Nest Support Services at , "they are in the shower longer, on the cell phone late at night. They leave mugs and dishes in the sink, wet towels on the floor, play loud music."

The return of the kids &

whether 19 or 29 or 39 &

is mostly a happy occasion, but to be managed successfully, it requires adjustments on everyone's part and perhaps a general lowering of expectations.

Jane Isay, author of "Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents," said that when she interviewed adult children for her book, she asked them about Thanksgiving.

"Well, they started by saying they can last four days without blowing up, and then they usually revise it down to three," she said.

Isay believes the smell of the roasting turkey in the oven actually can aggravate problems by stimulating the "reptile brain" &

the part of the brain that sends "everyone regressing back to the time when the children were small."

"They want to be treated like adults, but they leave laundry in the living room," Isay said. "They ask for advice, but they don't take it. ... They want to stay out until 4 in the morning, but they've forgotten that parents are awake waiting for them."

Fran Taylor, director of the wellness program at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said there also is the confusion over whether the returning kid is to be treated like a guest .

"Do you make them their favorite foods? Do you entertain them? Or do you expect them to come home and do the chores?" Taylor asked.

Every family has to find its own rhythms on this issue, she said, but it's important to articulate expectations.

She said that for many families, it might be that the adult child is treated like a guest for the first day, but by the second day, it's back to his or her more usual role in the family.

Here's some advice about how to enjoy your returning adult children without getting too frazzled.

Most empty nesters are so thrilled to have their kids back home that they tend to want to drop everything to make time in their schedules for whenever their kids are available. While you might want to be flexible, Caine suggests you continue with exercise or other routines that help keep you sane.

"If you have a yoga class at 8 in the morning or take an early morning walk, don't just sit around and wait for them to wake up," Caine said. "You don't have to take care of them anymore. You don't have to be the good mother or the good father, and even if you don't have a routine, get up, get dressed, get out the door. Make some time just for you so you don't feel used."

Caine also suggests avoiding too many questions or dispensing too much advice.

"We ask way too many questions. Just be there; just hang out, share something," Caine said.

For parents, one of the more vexing aspects of these visits home is that they aren't really about visiting with the family. Often, the adult child is eager to reconnect with old friends. Taylor suggests comparing schedules early on, understanding that the child is going to want to spend time with friends, but carving out some family time as well.

Inevitably, plans will change. Isay advises parents not to program their visiting children with many plans.

"If they have a sense of autonomy," it goes more smoothly, said Isay. Don't worry about their sleep schedule: Let them sleep as long as they want. They probably need it.

Isay says her policy is to follow her kids' lead when they come home: "I let them see me as much as they want and no more."

When she spends time with her adult son, his wife and their child, she'll offer to take care of the child for a bit so the parents can have free time.

She also suggests finding out about activities &

whether bowling or movies or shopping &

and encouraging family members to go off and do whatever interests them for awhile. This gives everyone a break from just hanging around the house.

Caine suggests letting adult kids know ahead if there are certain rules or courtesies you would like observed while home. She says it sometimes works to simply e-mail them a note ahead of time or leave a note on their bed at home. Such a note, she said, might tell the adult child how excited you are about their return and could acknowledge everyone's changing roles, but it also can lay down some rules for peaceful coexistence.

For instance, she says, it might say, "OK, good news ... no curfew. OK, bad news ... park the car on the street since you come home later and we have to get out the door before you." On curfews, by the way, the experts say you really can't expect an adult child to follow one, but you can ask them to call you if it appears they are going to get home later than they expected.

Or the note might issue instructions about putting dishes in the dishwasher, picking up clothes or not putting empty milk cartons back in the refrigerator. Putting it on paper might be easier for an adult child who doesn't want to be told what to do.

"What kids really want is for you to start seeing them in a new way," Caine said.

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