Going home for Christmas brings a mixture of emotions, not least because it is the longest period of time you’ve spent with relatives in the entire year.
Returning to your parents can also cause otherwise responsible adults to regress to behaving like the teenage version of themselves (who just eats the contents of the fridge and does no washing up).
“An amazing number of people are experiencing this,” says counsellor and relationship therapist, Andrew Marshall. “The whole experience of walking across your parent’s threshold is powerful.”
Although it is comforting to know it isn’t just us, we spoke to experts to find out why we turn into Harry Enfield’s Kevin for the Christmas period.
Why does our behaviour change?
Make no mistake, most people falling into this trap haven’t recently left home and struggling to find their feet in the world of adulthood. This affects people of all ages, with homes, jobs and responsibilities of their own.
But within minutes of being back in your parent’s home, you find yourself lying on the sofa, and abdicating all responsibility. “The reason this happens so often is because the roles are so incredibly well established,” says Marshall.
The role you had throughout your formative (childhood and teenage) years is the one you settle back into comfortably, often without even realising.
Marshall says: “Until we are adults we don’t analyse the roles in a family unit, it is like asking if fish know they are in water, we just don’t notice our roles.”
So if your parents have always been the ones to cook, clean, and tidy up after you, and you were never expected to do this yourself, it can be very hard to get out of that mentality (despite possibly feeling uneasy about it).
This isn’t helped by the fact your elders will naturally revert to their parental roles, even if you haven’t legally been a child for decades.
But we don’t behave like this in normal life.
It can be a little disconcerting to realise you might not have grown up as much as you thought you had, but that isn’t always the case.
The situation can be compounded by a number of factors, including other people, and being back in a place that has lots of memories attached to it.
Armele Philpotts, Relate relationship and family therapist, and a member of the BACP, says: “Often just being back in a place we left years before leaves us unsure of how to be and others unsure in their expectations of us.
“In healthy adult relationships we switch fluidly between the roles of adult, parent and child in response to what we and others need in the moment. For example, if our partner has had a bad day at work they may take on the child role in order to whinge, while we take on the role of sympathetic parent, then we switch into our adult roles to tackle the weekly shop together.”
But when you go back to your parents, you end up stuck in the allotted ‘child’ role, regardless of whether you might want to help or not.
And Marshall says our siblings and partners can make this worse: “If you were always the little brother or sister, or the rebel, or the peacemaker, then expect to be treated that way...the reinforcement [of old roles] going on here is huge.”
Is this really a problem?
Tempting as it is to ignore this (afterall it is only a short period and honestly the arguments don’t seem worth the trouble), Marshall says this parent-child dynamic is one of the biggest issues his patients face around Christmas.
In the short-term it causes niggling tension for the duration of your stay - we all know that family member who constantly complains that no one helps them in the kitchen, but anyone who tries to help is just ‘in the way’.
But taking a step back, it also means that our parents never get to know us properly as a person, rather than just as their children. “They only know a version of us that is outdated”, says Marshall.
“You just edit yourself in their presence and the bits you know they don’t like about you, and the person you are in real life is very different to the person that walks through that door to your parents.”
Equally, they are more than just a parent and you are not getting to meet them as a full person either.
Marshall says: “This is dangerous because it’s not just a case of falling back for the holidays, it makes us more aware of the roles we probably play with our families the whole year - this is just an exaggerated ‘cartoon version’ of that.”
So what can we do to fix it?
Once you’ve decided that you don’t want the dynamic to be like this anymore, the first thing you need to do is to take a step back and see the roles that everyone is playing (or else you end up slipping back into them too).
The first 24 hours that you are home for Christmas, try to be more of an observer than a contributor to the situation. “Just look at the roles that people play and the games they are playing with each other,” says Marshall.
“Don’t beat yourself up if you get hooked in, you are so conditioned it’s like throwing a ball and not expecting a dog to chase after it.”
Philpotts recommends taking a minute to breathe, offering to take the dog out or just hiding in the bathroom if you need to get some space to do this.
Then once you’ve had some time to understand the parts that you don’t like, for example that your elderly mother is like a butler, start asking her how you can help to alleviate that pressure on her. Or suggest you tackle the washing up instead.
What you are trying to do is move into an ‘adult to adult’ relationship (like the one you would have with friends if you were visiting their home).
“If your bids for change are turned down take some deep breaths, congratulate yourself for being more present in your family relationships, and remember that although you’d like a shift maybe others aren’t ready yet, and that’s ok too,” says Philpotts.