• Don't let the ghosts of Christmas past ruin this holiday season – use these simple therapeutic tips to help you do it differently

  • Counsellor Hannah Richardson explains parent, adult, and child ego states

  • If family challenges are a struggle, we have therapists to help here

The family Christmas, with its intense build-up and pressure to ‘have a good time’, can feel a bit like a World Cup penalty shoot-out. Old rivalries between siblings and newer dynamics between spouses or in-laws can be stirred and magnified by the intensity of the occasion.

The cracker-pull with the brother that you feel has always had the upper hand can be loaded with resentment of the past. Especially if you end up with the short end.

The first issue is probably who gets to play the match at home – i.e who’s turf is the big day on. Whether this gives the host a ‘home advantage’ is probably questionable. For whoever is hosting and providing the big feast has way more to deliver.

Not only do they need the arms of an octopus to prepare that high-stakes meal, they have to buzz around making sure everyone is OK and has their glasses topped up – or their partner does, and maybe they’re not pulling their weight.

The host may be co-dependently thinking: “Why do I always have to do everything?”

And if that is your thought this year – there’s news for you – you don’t. You can ask for help or do something different.

Some family members may resent having to travel a long way, and may be saying to each other: “Why do we always have to go to them?” 

“It’s not fair! It’s only because they have the biggest house – and that’s not fair!” or “They’re nearest to dad,” for example.

And it may mean they arrive, shrouded in a familiar sense of feeling ‘less than’ – less successful, less important, less assertive, just less all around, and they go into the event a little insecure or defensive perhaps. Awareness and sensitivity to this can help.

If you find yourself, as you arrive for the ninth year in a row after five hellish hours on the motorway, muttering under your breaths: “Next year we will definitely stay at home.”

Then you know what – do it differently next year, stay at home.

A key thing to remember is everyone has a different reality – we all see things in different ways. One person’s little joke, can be another’s huge insult. It can be a minefield. So why does all this old stuff come rushing head-long into our hearts and minds?

The way our brains work is to look for patterns, and to see those patterns confirmed. It helps us navigate the world – but it can be really black and white and inaccurate.

If one of your core beliefs is that sister X has always been mum’s favourite, then you will more than likely see evidence of that when the great present unwrapping takes place.

Then again perhaps sister X is mum’s favourite. If that’s the case there’s not that much you can do about that right now, but playing the wounded one, isn’t going to make you feel better about it on Christmas Day.

So, how to cope?

We can borrow some tools from transactional analysis (TA) to help us stay in the present and not get caught up with all this out-of-date stuff.

In TA, there are three main ego states – adult, parent and child. And the theory says we shift in and out of these ego states from moment to moment, depending on how we feel and how others are around us.

Adult is the one we want to be in most of the time. It is associated with square and steady body language, and thoughts and feelings from the present.

It is a kind of neutral, open-hearted, but boundaried, way of being that prevents us being pulled out of shape by someone else’s actions or intentions.

The Parent ego state

Divided into Critical Parent – associated with pointy fingers, telling people what to do and a sense of superiority – and Nurturing Parent – which is more caring and all about putting arms around someone – sometimes so tightly they feel smothered.

People have internalised the way their parents and other figures have treated them, and then demonstrate it to others when they are in this ego state.

Ever had the thought, “I sound like my mum?” Well there you go.

Then there’s the Child ego state

Adapted Child is probably the key one to look out for at Christmas time.

If you have received a message that you are bad in some way, and unconsciously feel the need to be pleasing or perfect, for example, in order to be accepted – then more than likely you’re cooking the Christmas dinner or shuffling around the washing up bowl with a damp tea towel.

If your parents were controlling, then you might find yourself resorting to the rebelliousness of the Free Child – the other part of the child ego state.

The key thing to remember is if someone speaks to you when they are in Parent or Child ego state, it invites you to respond from the opposite ego state.

So Critical Parent invites Adapted Child ego state and vice-versa.

This means you may find yourself responding like a stroppy teenager when you your mum says something like: “Do you really have to open the wine this early?”

Or maybe you feel controlled, put the wine down, and hang your head in the shame of being told off like you were as a child.

It can take a deliberate shift into your Adult ego state to prevent this invited transaction.

The Adult ego state

Adult ego state can be very useful in many situations beyond the family.

Notice your body language. Have you adopted the physical position of someone who has been told off? If so, adjust your body, straighten your back, lift your head and consciously respond from an adult state.

Is the person speaking to you looking like a wounded child? If so, you might have the urge to comfort them, but not really want to because you’ve been doing it for years, and you’re fed up with it.

Now is the time to adjust your body – straighten your head, square those shoulders and shift into Adult – not Parent. You don’t have to give the invited response if you aware of what’s going on.

Reflecting about of how things were in the past and what is really going on in the present can help remove some of the trap doors to old miseries at one of the most pressurised times of year.

And if this doesn’t work – reach out to a therapist!

Hannah Richardson is a verified Welldoing counsellor in Twickenham and online

Further reading

Welldoing's nine books of 2022 for Christmas gifts

8 tips for healthy boundaries at Christmas

Why do I feel like a child again when I go home for Christmas?

7 ways to avoid falling out with your family this Christmas

Transactional analysis: understanding self and other in relationship