In my early twenties, I went home for the holidays and it only took a few minutes inside my childhood home for me to have my very own Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde moment. Adult Brianna morphed into Brat-Anna. There are few endearing qualities about Brat-Anna. She stomps around the house. She uses “a tone,” and meets people with sarcasm and frequent eye rolls. She feels angsty for no definitive reason. And while Brat-Anna hasn’t totally evaporated and occasionally still rears her little teenage head now and again around the family holiday table, her appearance is less frequent, due in large part to some tools we will discuss later. And it turns out, I’m not the only person to suddenly become 14 all over again when they return home. So why is it that we revert to a childhood version of ourselves around family? Well, it’s quite simple, and if you need any validation that you’re not alone in this slightly distressing and mildly regressing endeavor, this blog post is for you.
What is regression, exactly?
Let’s first talk about regression. According to our misogynistic and sex-crazed friend Sigmund Freud, regression is a defense mechanism that occurs unconsciously. It can temporarily revert the ego to an earlier stage of development as opposed to handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way. I clearly have a lot of opinions about Freud; therefore, it is no surprise that I have opinions about this definition, which I think sounds kind of condescending. Hey Freud, why don’t you try immersing yourself in an atmosphere of triggers and see how you respond, OK? It’s not easy when your childhood bedroom looks the same as when you were eight years old, right down to your Raggedy Ann doll that still eerily stares at you.
That said, regression is most common in our early twenties, when adult children are trying to establish independence from their parents. Since they are only a few years past those formative teen years, parents can have difficulty accepting their child’s transition into adulthood. Parents can be critical, feel entitled to stating their opinions or want to control situations. And adult children may respond in a similar fashion as they did when they were younger due to this power imbalance that does not seem to get better with age.
These dynamics are familiar and comfortable, considering you probably spent the first eighteen years of your life living them out. Yet once children establish themselves as adults and parents accept this change, the parent-child relationship can develop into an adult-adult relationship, and regression can diminish. However, regression can persist into later life, especially if unhealthy dynamics are not addressed and changed. While you can’t change the lifelong patterns and traits of family members (although wouldn’t that be nice), you can change your reaction to them.
The best way to be an adult when you go home
- Set some boundaries
Setting clear boundaries, potentially in a proactive or reactive manner, is one way to mitigate your part in family dysfunction. For instance, if one of your cousins likes to talk about his problematic political beliefs that usually spark arguments, you might let your family know beforehand that you do not want to engage in or discuss politics. You may even plan your family gathering around people whose beliefs you respect and feel comfortable around. In another example, if your mom comments on how much sugar you’re eating while you’re cozied up at the dessert table with half a cookie in your mouth, you might calmly yet firmly state that what you decide to put in your body is not up for comment or discussion. Lastly, it is also important to respect the boundaries of others, especially if you are staying in someone else’s home. If you do not agree with the boundaries that your parents set or their lifestyle, you might consider staying with another family member or friend – or even dishing out the money for a hotel room if your budget allows.
- Deploy healthy coping mechanisms
If you do find yourself regressing to a previous childhood state, don’t beat yourself up about it! Practice mindful self-compassion. What would you say to a friend in this situation? I’m sure it would be a heck of a lot nicer than what you say to yourself, so do that instead. The holidays can be an incredibly stressful and challenging time. When I realize that Brat-Anna has made a comeback, I try to remove myself from the situation. Sometimes I don’t, and I then need to apologize for my actions when I feel less triggered. However, when I can pull myself away, I sit with whatever child-part needs attention. I let them say all that needs to be said, and often, it’s a lot. I allow my adult-self to console them, often just repeating the words, “I hear you. I see you. I’m breathing with you.” Once my child-part feels heard and acknowledged, my adult-self typically feels centered enough to reenter the world. Maybe I’ll revisit the prior conversation, or if my body is too exhausted, listening to my body is the ultimate form of self-care.
Other self-care coping mechanisms could involve journaling in a stream of consciousness format. Basically, dumping everything in your head onto a page and not stopping until your brain becomes silent. Be mean, be annoyed, let yourself not make any sense. Nobody will read it, or at least make sure nobody reads it.
Meditation or mindful breathing can also help with stress. The act of focusing on the ins and outs of your breath tricks your body into switching from your sympathetic nervous system, in fight or flight mode, to your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to rest and digest. If you’re around nature, taking long walks could ease your mind. Maybe buy yourself a treat or call a friend that makes you laugh or listens well.
Finally, know that this immensely stressful time will not last forever; all emotions are fleeting, so feel them fully while they last.