I spoke recently on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program about the psychology behind why we regress to our teenage selves at Christmas (and other such family gatherings). Have a listen at the link!

For those who like to read or want to know more information, the notes that I made to prepare for the interview are below. The questions were posed by the producer, Emma Nobel.

Why do we regress when we’re with family?

To understand why we go back to old ways of acting around our family, it’s useful to understand how hard-wired we are to form relationship patterns in the first place.

The limbic area in the middle part of our brain is good at picking up information through our senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, which this is then linked to memories that your brain has stored away, which often prompts a strong emotional response and quick action if it’s called for. And this network of memory-emotional-behaviour pathways have to be activated fast because it wouldn’t be good for us if we had to slowly and consciously figure out if we’re in danger each time we encounter something or relearn how to do something routine (e.g., tie our shoelaces) each time we need to do it.

We are particularly geared to pick up and store information to do with social interactions because from hunter-gather days we were more likely to survive if we had people around us. We are so hardwired to connect with others that even as babies, we are very attuned to our parents’ mood and behaviours and we do as much as we can to keep them close to us, thus increasing our chances of survival and sense of safety. We’re not thinking to do this, we just do it automatically to survive. And parents also respond to and are influenced by their children’s behaviour. Psychologists call this connection “attachment”. So already, we have a pattern of relating to our parents that is very difficult to shake because it’s so linked to our survival. Later, we learn to relate to other people in our world, usually starting with our family.

Each family has its own patterns of relating to each other, we call that family dynamics.

And that’s not only the inner workings or behaviours within your family, but it’s also the way culture and society affect the family, as well as how the members influence one another as well.

One way I talk to my clients about family dynamics is to get them thinking about it like a dance. You make some moves, and other family members do their own moves in response.

There’s a domino effect happening, and everyone influences one another. Families often have roles – the funny one, the angry one, the responsible one, the trouble-maker, the peacekeeper… And once we’re in these roles, we tend to default to them, particularly in times of stress.

This is why family gatherings sometimes come to a head. You’re in a familiar location with lots of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, all of which spark off memories of things you’ve experienced and this gives rise to a mix of emotions. You’ve got your attachment, a long time spent forming a dance with your family where everyone does the moves unconsciously…and adding alcohol to the mix means that we are even more likely to react from our “emotional brain” where the memories are stored rather than the higher parts of our brain that are responsible for rational thinking and planning.

How are family roles encouraged?

For the most part, these roles are reinforced unconsciously. It’s the dance – your behaviour evokes some emotion in me, which makes me respond with my behaviour, and vice versa.

For example, maybe a child notices that their parents fight all the time. Their brain picks up on the raised voices, the sight of their parents’ faces when they’re upset, and their brain kicks the body’s fight-or-flight system into gear – their heart beats faster and they feel shaky, which is uncomfortable and scary. Their parents aren’t paying attention to them and they aren’t stopping, so over time, they learn to try and stop the fight by mediating between them. And the scary sensory stuff stops sometimes, which makes it more likely that they try it again. And maybe one of the parents says, “oh, ask Mum about this because she always listens to you, not me”, and the child unwittingly becomes the peacekeeper over time.

Do we tend to regress to a certain age, i.e., teenagers?

My guess is that teenagers are the thing most people think about because it’s the developmental stage that is most known for its assertion of independence and testing boundaries, which sometimes can look defiant like the behaviour you’re seeing in front of you.

But I think it’s more accurate to say that we regress or default into the role you’ve mostly played in your life – this could be a stereotypical “parent” role where you tell others what to do to try and get some order, or it could be a more “childlike” role where you get passive-aggressive instead of asking for what you want.

Does the length of time with family matter?

Staying longer with people can give more time for conflict to arise because everyone does things a little differently – from cooking, cleaning, the topics of conversation, and how conflict is dealt with. It’s kind of like that difference between dating someone and living with someone. You can be on your best behaviour, hold yourself together for a few hours, look good, and be mindful. But we can’t keep that up.

Is falling into old roles a sign we could be out of practice with one another after time apart?

I don’t think falling into old roles is necessarily a sign that we’re out of practice with one another. It’s true that there might be some extra awkwardness if people haven’t seen each other for a while, especially since in some places Covid has meant we may be a little out of practice with socializing and having to allocate our energy to it. And as I mentioned before, much of this falling into old roles is hard to shake because we are often reacting from our emotional brain, whether you see your family often or not much at all. And not all family roles are necessarily bad ones – sometimes it can be quite a nice thing to go back to something familiar if the dynamic was happy and safe.

But I know that some people find that distance has helped them step back and notice their family dynamics from a more objective space, not just the emotional brain. This noticing may then prompt people to think how they would like to respond differently to their family,

Could this happen at any holiday or gathering that’s steeped in tradition?

Yes. Family dynamics are also influenced by culture at large – for example, there are often certain sensory stimuli that are very evocative for memories and emotions, there may be certain society-wide or family expectations associated with certain holidays or gatherings. All of this can serve to heighten emotions for people, which makes it more likely that they go to the behaviours they know best.

What can we do in the moments we are triggered?

Firstly, we need to physically slow down because the emotional brain is responsible for physically revving up our body when it senses a threat. Some ways to do this:

    • Take a few breaths
    • Notice your breath
    • Take some time out
    • Give the adrenaline coursing through you somewhere to go by moving your body
    • Splash your face with cold water or hold something cold to your face
    • Ground yourself by naming five things you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch

If we slow down enough, we are more able to use our cortex, the top part of our brain that is responsible for thinking and organising.

You can also pay attention to your emotions – they are normal signals that tell us something. It can be useful to ask, what is this feeling telling me? How do I want to respond to this?

How can we plan for time with our family?

Reflect beforehand: Take some time to notice what the patterns are in your family. Notice some things about yourself – how does it make you feel? What does that tell you about what you need? How would you like the time with your family to go? What would trigger you? It can help to write things down or talk it out with someone you trust, as this helps us get more in that objective headspace rather than having thoughts swirl around in your head.

Part of this reflection process may also be to reframe others’ behaviour – what we usually get triggered by is others’ anger, so it’s useful to think of anger as just the visible tip of the iceberg with other feelings hidden beneath the surface (see diagram below). Sometimes trying to understand what’s underneath someone’s anger can help us cope better.

Then after this thinking, make a plan: How would you respond to upsets? How long could you stay with the energy you have? What will you focus on to enjoy the day? What sort of safe topics could you bring up with certain family members? Who are your supportive people? And do you need an exit plan? What’s your plan after the gathering to care for yourself.

If you’re bringing a partner or someone else, should you involve them in your planning before?

This can be so helpful, especially talking about expectations before going to an event as well. Each family has its own way of doing things. Like, what are we going to do on the day? How much time are we spending? How do we want this to go as a couple?

What should you do if you witness someone else regressing? Should you say something?

Ask yourself: Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said right now? And does this need to be said right now by me? I think your answers to that will vary. It might be a conversation you have later in private because if someone is behaving differently, they are operating out of their emotional brain and you might not get through to them until they’re calmer.

If you are going to say something, try using I-messages where you talk about how you feel and what you need. So instead of a “you message” like, “you’re acting really childishly right now” which is likely to get a defensive response, you might say in a light tone, “oh, I don’t feel comfortable talking about this, let’s talk about something else!”

Esther Perel had some interesting tips about how one can defuse comments made by family:

Should you set expectations with your family beforehand?

This is really helpful! Take some time to think of what you need to operate best and let the relevant people know. I-messages and highlighting the positives come in handy here – for example, “I’m going to come at lunch time and leave just before dinner, looking forward to seeing you!” This way people know what to expect on the day and aren’t caught out by surprise.

Is it possible to set boundaries when you’re the host?

It certainly is! It’s worth thinking beforehand about what you can manage in terms of the length of time, what you provide, what you’d like others to bring, and so on, and communicating this with your guests beforehand.

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