• No one can get under our skin like family and at Christmas you might find yourself acting like the child you thought you had left behind

  • Therapist Yasmin Rashid explains this tendency to regress and offers some tips to foster self-compassion

  • We have therapists and counsellors available to support you here

So you’re going home for Christmas – how do you prepare? For some people this will seem like a strange question. Isn’t this the period where you do nothing but revel in the warmth and cosiness of familiarity with family members whilst bingeing on heart warming Christmas movies and yummy leftovers? What is there to prepare for? 

Well, for many of us going home for Christmas can also feel like being transported back in time where we’re younger version of ourselves. Scary right? The phenomena of feeling like a child when we go home for Christmas is understandable given that it’s one of the only times of the year that the family dynamics from childhood are reinstated and played out in one place, at the same time. What I mean is, parents are still parents, grandparents are still grandparents and you are still their child and grandchild in that environment, even if you’re now an adult. Without the  luxury of distance or the distraction of daily activities like going to work, the family dynamics are given space to come to the fore at Christmas. This can be lovely but it can also be challenging and confronting and here’s why.

Memories of Christmas are usually etched securely into our minds. Chances are, if I asked you to remember a childhood memory you may take a while to sift through the vault of your mind, but what if I asked you to recall a childhood memory of Christmas? Usually we can recall these with more speed and ease. This is because Christmas is a nostalgic event that carries strong associations: the songs, the food, the movies, the classic coca cola adverts. 

Cognitive psychologists call these associations ‘cues’ and argue that they result in strong episodic memories - “a person’s unique memory of a specific event”. What’s more these a ‘cues’ are on repeat (think Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’ on the radio) causing them to remain in our long-term memory as we grow into adults. But the associations we have with Christmas are not always fuzzy and warm. For many, family arguments and tension were also present growing up, maybe even every year, on repeat. And so Christmas in general can be emotionally triggering and difficult for some.

Okay, but why do you feel like a child when you go home?

In psychology, ‘regression’ is a term used to describe a “defense mechanism in which an individual copes with stressful or anxiety-provoking relationships or situations by retreating to an earlier developmental stage”. 

Regression has its roots in psychoanalysis, a form of therapy that seeks to understand unconscious conflicts arising from childhood experiences that can cause mental health difficulties. So going home for Christmas can trigger memories of the past and bring us into contact with unconscious feelings that are rooted in childhood. As a result, we regress, and revert to the roles, feelings and behaviours experienced then. 

Let’s say you find that one of your parents dotes on a sibling, perhaps they get more roast potatoes than you, and suddenly the pang of resentment and frustration bubbles up reminding you of all the times you have felt overlooked. Or your asked probing questions about when you are going to start a family or how work is going, questions that make you feel judged and unsafe. Or your parent’s frantic panic, obsessiveness and perhaps martyrdom (because parents regress too) over the Christmas itinerary evokes feelings of anxiety, panic and helplessness in you. It can be really challenging to deal with these feelings in the moment and you may suddenly find yourself seated at the dinner table as the child version of you that wants to hide or to shout to protect themselves.

If any of this sounds familiar I would urge you to practice a lot of self-care during the holiday season as it can be really tough to manage. Here are some self-care tips that I use with my clients and that I hope you find useful:

  • Recall some of your earlier memories of Christmas and try to anticipate what feelings may come up for you when you go home
  • Notice any anxiety or unease you feel about going home for Christmas and try journaling or talking it through with a trusted friend, partner or therapist
  • Try not to internalise the messages you subconsciously or overtly receive from family members if you deem them to be harmful or toxic and don’t be afraid to remove yourself from a situation that makes you feel unsafe psychologically. It’s easier said than done but it’s worth considering.
  • Set boundaries that work for you. Perhaps you don’t want to spend more than a day there. This will give you a sense of control and reassure your younger self that you can look after them.
  • Think about what you enjoy, or might enjoy, about spending time with family at Christmas and try to focus on those aspects in order to get the most out of it.

More than anyone, Christmas should be enjoyed by children and all of us were one of those once upon a time! So if the little version of you happens to comes out to play this Christmas, remember to look after them and make magical memories worth keeping.

Yasmin Rashid is a verified welldoing.org online psychotherapist

Further reading

Why does my therapist ask about my childhood?

How to minimise family conflict at Christmas

Birth order: does your position in the family really make a difference?

Why are mother-daughter relationships so complex?

How has your childhood affected your experience of the pandemic?