THE BLOG
07/31/2015 02:54 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

Dear Family Whisperer: What To Do About "Grandparent Detox" (or Summer Camp Re-Entry)

Typically, the Family Whisperer waits to be asked. That's a cardinal rule for all relationships, especially adult child/parent duos! But I'm on vacation; I have beach brain. So I'm throwing caution to the wind and offering unsolicited advice to Rachel Toalson, author of a recent blog entitled, "Detoxing from the Grandparents Is Real. I Swear." I also suspect that other parents experience a similar phenomenon when kids come home from summer camp.

No, Rachel, it is not real, unless you see it that way. Through a family lens, what you describe as "detoxing" is not an after-effect of your boys living with your mother and step-father. Rather, it's a symptom of change -- the only constant in family life.

Looking at this objectively -- you are not my adult daughter, so I can! -- I see young boys who have been living with different adults for a week and now return to their usual set of adults. The other adults apparently levy fewer rules and are willing to tolerate more mess -- emotional and arts-and-craft mess -- than the first set of adults. Granted, the novelty adults get to send the boys home.

Also, the young boys have been away from their "stuff" for a week. Try seeing the situation from their perspective, or your own for that matter. What do you need when you've been away for a while and finally get home? Some of us like to unpack, or to just plop down. We're happy to be on our own turf.

It's no different for children. A divorced mother once told me that her son methodically walked around the house after time at his dad's, touching everything, seemingly reassured that it was all still there. Your boys are doing the same thing:

No one wants to go into the backyard when I suggest bouncing on the trampoline instead, because they all missed their toys "so, so, so much!"

So for starters, view your boys' "bouncing off the walls" as a normal aspect of re-entry. For example, labeling your son's post-grandparents' enthusiam "ridiculous" seems a bit harsh:

I forgot to show you this really neat picture I made at Nonny and Poppy's house, and did you see this word search I colored instead of circling words on, and oh, yeah, I made this really neat paper airplane out of a superhero drawing. Do you want to see it fly? And my brother just got new markers for his birthday and I have this blank sheet of white paper and I LOVE TO COLOR SO MUCH!

Humorous -- you're great at capturing the moment -- but not "ridiculous." Doesn't everyone want to savor and share memories and souvenirs after a trip?

You want to reign in the "stuff"? Buy them fewer toys. Enlist their help when it's time to give old toys away instead of doing it for them. Also think about what will have value to them years from now --Legos or a drawing made at Grandma's house? You might buy each boy a portfolio -- an inexpensive paper one an art student might carry -- and label it, "My drawings" (or whatever each chooses).

Next, reconsider all those rules and why you have them. I get it: In today's rushed, unruly world, rules give the illusion of control. Certainly, you have a right to expect certain behavior -- part of your job description is to turn your boys into good citizens. But children also need to be respected as individuals and to get practice in being a citizen, not just being a child who "behaves." Participating in family provides basic training.

As psychologist Wendy Mogul (The Blessing of a Skinned Knee) famously put it, "Your child is not your masterpiece." We can lay down rules, but they are who they are. Give them a little more room to be. Listen. Instead of rushing to restore what you consider "normal," find out how your boys have changed and what they've learned as a result of their week away.

Clearly, you want order -- ergo, your one-book/toy-at-a-time rules. But ask yourself whether that's a realistic standard you all can live by. Don't you ever want to read more than one book at time, or a book and a magazine? Do you ever -- say, cook and listen to music?

Every family has a different tolerance for chaos -- but standards are less likely to work if they're dictated by one member. Instead of asking your boys to live by rules you make, engage them in a discussion about how "we" -- as a family -- want to live. What's "neat," what's "fair," what's "helpful" to everyone?

By all means, make your case. Explain why "order" makes sense to you: It's easier to find things, less chance of tripping, you feel better when the house is "tidy." But be sure to let them (and Dad) weigh in, too.

Then, talk about how to achieve order together and in a way that's flexible and realistic, like: We always put things back after we use them. It's not so much a rule as a way of life. It will take repeating and reminding, but when the boys are part of the process, they are more likely to follow rules and, even better, you won't be the only one to enforce them.

Finally, and most important, focus on the positive: Give more weight to the benefits of your kids' time away from you than to the "problem" of their return. Time away from parents is like camp, a place where they get to be freer and -- even better than camp -- a place where they are loved unconditionally and feel a link to their (and your) past. "

For you, too, time away from your kids is vital. It's not only a blessing to "spend some beautiful time," as you put it, "reconnecting and engaging in conversations where we actually get to finish our sentences -- and remembering how much we liked each other in the first place." It's a necessity. Indeed, giving your relationship nourishment is just as important as being a good parent -- maybe more so. It will make your whole family strong.

Hi, it's Melinda. I welcome your comments and suggestions. Do you have a question about your family or a relationship? No topics are off limits, and it's all anonymous. Ask via Twitter @MelindaBlau #DearFamilyWhisperer, or click on this link.