Ask An Adult: Why Do We Automatically Start Acting Like Massive Children When We Go Home For Christmas?

There's a psychological reason we go back to making our sisters cry and getting grumpy when woken up pre-midday. And a way to prevent it. Artwork by Beth Hoeckel


by Stevie Martin |
Published on

Last year, during Christmas, I stayed in bed until 1pm and threw a tempter tantrum when I was told to sort out the mountain of clothes that had piled up in my room. I was 25 years old.

Weirdly, this regression to my 18-year-old self (ie an outrageous prick) has happened pretty much every single year I’ve been back home over the festive period and shows no signs of letting up. I even eat like a teenager, coming downstairs at midnight to make cheese ploughman’s sandwiches or bagels smeared with philly (or both) like I’ve got my 2006 metabolism, and moaning about Hoovering like I’ve got my 2006 shitty attitude. And it’s not just me. This is actually incredibly common.

‘I’m a grown-up, tax-paying London lady now, and every time I go home I try to show this by saying things like, “Mum, I was in the longest meeting with the client”, or [There’s just not enough time in the day to network”, but then I‘ll get fully pissed off when my 25-year-old sister gets a nicer colour nail polish in her stocking,’ says Jenn, 23.

‘I also tend to stalk my mum around the kitchen, asking her if I can stir things or asking her, “Can I have some some of this?”, which really pisses her off.’

Hard-working, independent women become mollycoddled children unable to figure out the toaster, and high-powered dudes who wouldn’t blink at working all hours of the evening turn into lazy, entitled arseholes. But why does this happen?

Are we programmed to return to the place where we were least independent and become exactly the same mental age as we were when we left it? Nadine Field, a consultant psychologist, believes that it’s the result of tensions between the new person we’ve become, and the old routines we’re so used to, that sends us spiralling into hunched shoulders and teenage grunting.

‘It’s quite the conflict between having established your own identity and created your own routines, your own system and your own ways of interacting with other people, and going back to the original family system which you’ve modified and moved on from,’ she explains. ‘As you’re entering the old system, it triggers old behaviours and the frustrations set in.’

Makes sense, because it’s always the old frustrations we used to have when we last lived there. ‘I eat the incredible seven-course meal mum provides and then she asks me to do the dishes and I’m like, “But I don’t want to do the dishes, I want to watch TV”,’ says Gina, who’s 23 and used to be the one who always tried to get out of doing the dishes.

‘I live on my own. I do about 78 dishes a day, but when I’m in my childhood home I’m programmed to get annoyed about having to do regular life stuff.’

We all had a role, or a part to play, in the family system – whatever it was – and that’s exactly what we turn to when we walk through that door on 24 December. Especially considering the traditions of Christmas, and the way in which everything tends to have a routine and a ‘way’, thereby reinforcing this ‘entering into the old family system’ concept.

‘Quite often it’s the expectation of the family that affects us – they still view you as their little girl or their little boy. And you still view them as the people who annoyed you all those years ago,’ Nadine says. ‘It’s about reminding yourself to stay in the adult mode, saying, “This is OK, don’t react to it, I am an adult”. It doesn’t always work, though, and you may well find yourself chucking the Christmas pud out the window thinking, “Yep, I’ve lost it!”’

Siblings seem to be the fast-track to conflict. My sister and I live in London, occasionally argue, but on the whole get on very well. When we go home, it takes about three days before one of us is crying because the other called them a ‘stupid idiot’ or didn’t believe something they said so Googled it, causing lots of whining.

‘Because you’ve entered right back into that system, the sibling rivalry kicks right in. Things that have been long since put to bed come right back out of the box,’ Nadine explains. ‘It depends how the parents are with you and if they do give more attention to one than the other, or if they indulge your arguments and treat you like adults or children. These arguments also highlight the fact you’re enclosed and trapped in the house.’

We play up to these roles too – I genuinely enjoy teasing my sister about the fact that mum and dad love me the most, and that I’m the perfect one, even though that’s not true. She has a chip on her shoulder because I’m the firstborn, and she always walks right into the trap which, again, ends in whining and shouting. We’re both in our twenties, and we both have proper jobs and everything. It’s embarrassing.

The one surefire way to kick it in the head (before you kick your sister in the head)? Acknowledge it. Laugh about it. ‘Laughing with the other siblings, with your parents, is a really good way of keeping it in check. If you can’t stop it, then acknowledge and accept it,’ Nadine suggests. ‘Saying, “Oh, look at us!” and having a laugh about it will break the tension and you can all get back to normal.’

On the other hand, you could just take it to its logical conclusion – demand nappies, start shitting yourself and cry every three hours for no apparent reason before vomming up milk onto the nearest human. That should bring back some fond memories for your parents, and cuts out any of that sibling rivaly stuff, at the very least.

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Follow Stevie on Twitter: @5tevieM

Artwork by Beth Hoeckel

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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