• Family time at Christmas can bring mixed emotions as we navigate long-established family dynamics

  • Therapist Jasminka Milena Letzas explores the challenges that come if you were raised by emotionally immature parents

  • If you have childhood issues that you want to work through, find a therapist here

Christmas time is often synonymous with family gatherings, a time to reconnect and share joy. However, for individuals with emotionally immature parents or family members, these reunions can be tinged with the challenge of navigating toxic dynamics. This article explores practical strategies, informed by a therapeutic perspective, to help ease the holiday tension that may arise when faced with relatives exhibiting emotionally immature behaviour. 

What is emotional immaturity? 

Emotionally immature people exhibit characteristics akin to impulsive and egocentric behaviour, reminiscent of a young child. If you were exposed to emotionally immature parents or caretakers in your childhood, you are likely to have been a victim of their unpredictability and emotional over-reactivity. This behaviour is often bundled with a display of rigid authority but can also come in the form of aloofness. These parents often show a lack of empathy and absent themselves when the child has a need or needs protection. 

In many cases emotionally immature parents and caretakers function well in other domains of their lives, so that the family looks problem-free from the outside. However, the self-involvement and limited empathy of the adult(s) has a strong detrimental effect on the child, or the children involved. These grow up feeling lonely and connection-deprived, feelings that become so engrained that they become part of their emotional base line state. Many times, the child blames itself, thinking it must be not interesting or loveable enough. This can lead to the adoption of unhelpful coping mechanisms, like shutting down or trying to become invisible to not upset and trigger the parent. Often these behaviour patterns carry through into later life.  

Thankfully, we can change our behaviour patterns and coping mechanisms once we identify those dynamics and are more aware of what is happening and what are the underlying causes. This work might require the help from a skilled therapist, but there are many clues that you can notice yourself. So, if you feel lonely around them, if interactions seem one-sided and frustrating, if you feel in any way trapped, coerced or guilt-tripped by them, then those are warning signs. Also, they rarely respect your boundaries, physically, emotionally, and mentally. They might even communicate strong emotions non-verbally and draw you into their drama, at the same time expecting you to guess what is wrong, or why they are upset. Even as an adult they expect you to be a compliant child and do not respect your individuality, your needs, or your viewpoints. They might even go as far as deflating your dreams and humiliating you. 

You might find yourself falling back into coping strategies you adopted as a child, for example if you learned to work around them, to attune to their needs and to read the subtle clues that they are unhappy or about to explode. Most likely you feel responsible for their emotional upsets, as they are unable to modulate or regulate their own emotions and they expect you to make them feel better. 

Does any of this sound familiar? 

If yes, it is good to manage your expectations: it is unlikely your parents or relatives will change late in life. However, there are ways you can make your encounters less upsetting to yourself and how you can resist emotional take-over. 

It is important that you do not zone out or switch off during these family get-togethers. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and emptiness later. Stay connected with yourself. Stay in touch with your emotions, your physical sensations, and the present moment. Be aware of the other person’s short-comings and do not expect too much.  

You might notice that you constantly feel rushed around emotionally immature relatives. Everything is circling around their needs. Become conscious of this and if during a Christmas gathering a situation arises where someone tries to pressure you into something, say that you need some time to think about this. Then change the topic or find a reason to get up or move around. If you know ahead of the day that there will be certain demands coming your way, take your time in advance to figure out exactly what you want. That way you cannot be put on the spot and talked into something you are not sure about. Do not try to fixate on trying them to act differently. Rather, become aware of what you can do, what you want to do, what your limits are and what is within your power. You might underestimate your power as one can easily fall back into the role of helpless child when around dominating parents. 

Another piece of advice is not to take every emotional outburst so seriously. Emotionally immature people often behave like young children; an emotional outburst might blow over within a few minutes or when something else catches their attention. So, keep it light, be patient and pleasant, but stick to your boundaries. You can repeat your points in numerous ways or even be evasive, vague or change the topic. Rather than prompting confrontation, you might express empathy or understanding as in “I know this is not the answer you were hoping to hear, but this is all I can say at the moment”. Most importantly: stick to your boundaries and do not let anyone rush you into anything. If you have made decisions about things that are within your power, then there is no reason to argue about them: your choices are not up for debate. 

Lead the interaction, talk about what you want to talk about. Side-step and distract if needed. Create space for yourself: find ways to disconnect when it gets too much: e.g., say you need a nap, you have been working too much. Say you need to work on something and withdraw to another room. Say you need some fresh air and re-energise yourself and go for a walk. Call a friend, to either vent or simply snap out of the drama unfolding. Have a laugh and break the spell: emotional coercion does not work if you do not take it seriously. Give yourself frequent breaks. 

Ideally do not stay over at your parents or relatives in question. Book a room nearby or stay with friends. It is healthy to have a place you can retreat to, if interactions become overwhelming. Again, work commitments are a good excuse for this. 

While dealing with emotionally immature relatives during Christmas time can be challenging, implementing these strategies can serve as a first-aid kit. By employing a combination of self-awareness and strategic coping mechanisms, you can reclaim control over your emotional well-being and create healthier boundaries during family gatherings. 

If you recognise the need for deeper, long-term changes, seeking the guidance of an experienced therapist is recommended.

Jasminka Milena Letzas is a verified Welldoing therapist in Central London and online

Further reading

Christmas is a time for sharing, in therapy

Parent, Adult, Child: Harness the power of ego states this Christmas

10 signs you grew up with emotionally immature parents

Why we feel shame and how to let it go

How our childhood affects our sense of self-worth