What is it that makes perfectly reasonable adults start to act like teenagers as soon as they hit their parents’ front door?
You know how it goes: The oldest starts acting bossy. The kid who never helped with the chores still heads for the TV instead of the kitchen or yard where others are helping out. The guy who now runs a substantial business goes back to being the family screw-up.
Meanwhile, the parents oblige by being more parental than they would dream of being with other young adults in their lives: more critical, giving more advice than is appreciated, issuing orders to clean up their language or pick up the coat they dropped on the floor, and treating their adult kids like, well, kids.
Old patterns of behaving die hard. As a high school basketball coach I know frequently tells his players, “Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. It makes permanent.”
Think about it. The family is our first experience with the social world. Each kid who comes into the family reacts to those who came before, looking for a way to be unique but also to be part of the group. One kid becomes the “smart one” or the “smart one in math” while the other becomes the “smart one in history.” One becomes the athlete, another gets known to be the funniest, or the best or worst with money or the best or worst at organizing. For each family member, finding a unique identity means strengthening particular attributes and talents.
At the same time, belonging requires some level of conformity to our family’s idea of the family identity, at least some of the time. In the normal shuffle and scuffle of daily life, we learn what wins acceptance from our family and what will get us put in the timeout chair or sent to our room; what ensures our membership in the family and what will risk rejection. For almost 20 years, we spend some part of almost every day as one of the dancers in the elaborate dance of family life. Our roles become as choreographed and familiar as the opening number of a well-known show. Twenty years. That’s a whole lot of practice for making the family style and our role in it permanent.
Our roles may be modified considerably when we move out into the larger world. But get us together with the original group and 20 years of practice bubbles back up to the surface. Never underestimate the seductive draw of what is familiar. It just feels natural to snap back into our well-rehearsed part. The “responsible one” volunteers for more than she really wants to do. The “baby” goes back to playing the cute card in spite of herself. When with her dad, the independent woman can slip once again into the “princess” role she had as a child while her brother starts to swagger a bit like his former teenage jock self.
As we grow to adulthood, we expand our repertoire of skills for interacting with others. Feedback from friends, classmates, and colleagues shape us in new and important ways that may not work as well in the family. It’s normal and okay to regress a bit when in the bosom of family but it’s important to hold onto the adult we’ve become as well. Being mature means catching ourselves when we start to slide into old roles that are self-centered or over-stated or less balanced and actively deciding to relate in the family with the same dignity and maturity we use with others.
As parents age and become the parents of adults, they need to treasure the memories of these big people as the children they once were and at the same time validate and appreciate who they’ve become. It’s normal and okay to regress to a bit to being parental when adult kids come home but it’s important to step out of that well-rehearsed role as well. Being mature means not treating them as children and actively deciding to move to a more adult-adult relationship.
When both generations make the effort, moments of regression to the past can be sweet because they are nested in a larger appreciation of who each person has come to be in the present.
Avoid Getting Stuck in Regression
Most families can and do make the transition into adult-adult relationships. Here are a few ideas to help you avoid getting stuck in regression when pulled by the familiar family dance:
- Regression can be sweet if it’s kept in bounds. You don’t need to hold so tight to your new roles that you can’t enjoy and take comfort from revisiting the old ones. It’s OK for grown kids to enjoy Mom’s cooking or to sit on the couch with Dad to watch favorite sports. Those moments can be treasured – as long as adult kids then pitch in and contribute in some way to rebalance the relationship.
- Resist the impulse to correct, criticize, or give advice unless it is asked for. That goes for both generations. Parents don’t need to revert to being parental. Adult kids don’t need to regress into their teenaged critical selves. No amount of good advice or arguing is going to change things in a holiday weekend. Bite your tongue unless someone takes you aside and asks what you think. That’s a genuine request for help and support you can respond to as long as you do so with tact.
- If your family has always been contentious, promise yourself not to regress to bickering, arguing, or responding in kind to putdowns or critical comments. A fight can happen only if both sides engage. If you use humor instead or simply say, “Let’s not. It’s Christmas,” the other party usually will drop it too. (By the way: It may take a few tries. Sometimes people are so perplexed by a former adversary’s refusal to engage that they try again to start the familiar fight. Stay calm and just continue to decline in as friendly a way as you can. They’ll usually get the message.)
- Pro-gress instead of re-gress. It gets more and more complicated to go “home” when young adults find partners and start having kids of their own. At some point, it may no longer make sense for some or all of the adult kids to travel back to their parents’ home for every family celebration. The older generation can make this transition easier by being flexible about how and when they spend holidays. The younger generation can make it easier by remembering that parents and older relatives who love them are interested in their lives and need to see them – or at least hear from them – during the holiday season. Advance planning is the key. When there are careful and loving conversations about who needs to go where for family holiday events, it’s possible to maintain a sense of family togetherness while accommodating new realities.