Holiday Regression and How to Cope

The experience and emergence of holiday regression is completely normal.

Imagine this: You are grown and living a life away from your parents, perhaps with your own family and children now too. The holidays arrive and you visit your childhood home and see your parents, siblings, cousins. Suddenly, you feel like a teenager again! The same fights over the same silly things. And you don’t know what’s happening. Didn’t I grow out of this? As annoying, confusing, and bewildering as it may feel, the experience and emergence of holiday regression is completely normal. And, in fact, even fairly common.

What is Holiday Regression?

Holiday regression refers to a phenomenon that often happens during the holiday season when adults frequently return to their childhood homes or visit their families of origin. During this time, we are hit with waves of nostalgia, we experience triggers (both positive and negative), and we often revert back to our original role and function within our family unit. 

Families are systems. Each individual plays a role and serves a function, often without even realizing it. Think of it as a sort of intricate dance in which each person plays a part and moves in a pattern that works with the others’ movements as well. It creates stability, predictability, and equilibrium. As humans, we develop patterns, roles, and behaviors that WORKED at one point and in one way or another. We may not always like it, but it served a purpose that benefited the group as a whole (the family) rather than the individual. In theory, if the group benefits, each individual that is a part of that group should benefit too. 

When we grow up and move out, we continue to grow and develop. This time, however, we do not always have to facilitate that growth with the original group in mind. When we visit home (especially during stressful times such as the holiday season) we may regress or revert back to our previous behaviors and attitudes that served a function for us and the family growing up, even if they no longer serve that same purpose in our individual lives away from home. 

Regression to our original role within the family may even relate back to our need as humans to seek belonging and connection. We have evolved to seek protection and safety in groups and community, so regression during the holidays may be part of your self-preservation to feel safe, calm, and taken care of if you fit in and belong. This is not inherently wrong; there are just good, better, best ways to manage this reaction.

The function that we are talking about does not necessarily mean it made everyone happy. It just made the group flow in a predictable pattern. When we leave that group for a while and then return, that function may be disruptive and frustrating depending on why we developed that pattern in the first place. We may be frustrated by bickering between siblings or whining to nagging parents.

Before going home, it would do well to take care and assess your level of vulnerability. If you had a “good” childhood, you may not need to do as much to keep the peace. You may even be able to laugh at the phenomenon while you observe it. If you had a “difficult” childhood, you may need to take more breaks to allow your mind and body to rest from stimuli. You may need to be aware of various triggers that could come up in order to more properly, appropriately, and effectively address them when they arise or avoid them if possible. You may even need to preemptively discuss boundaries regarding topics of discussion, activities, etc. with the other family members that will also be present.

Understanding the concept and phenomenon of holiday regression adds a layer of compassion for both self and others during a period of high stress and confusion. The question remains: What do I do about this?

What You Can Do

  1. First things first: Be kind to yourself. A lot is happening, and your unconscious mind takes over to help you exist within the environment. Regression happens because it is your brain trying to help you. Self-compassion is crucial. 
  2. Compassion for other people can go a long way too. Other people around you are probably regressing as well. Try to not internalize their behaviors and responses too much. It is probably a lot more about them than it is about you. 
  3. Minimize and avoid the idea of holiday perfection. We often feel nostalgia with familiar sights, smells, and even traditions. It can elicit an emotional response (positive or negative). The bad memories can feel worse than they actually were, and the good memories can feel much more positive and “perfect” than they actually were. Aiming to recreate those perfect memories will lead to overwhelm. Take breaks and set realistic and attainable expectations to avoid this perfectionism spiral. 
  4. The more intense the situation feels, the more we revert back to the “lower levels” of our brain. This means that we will engage in more self-preserving tactics and unconscious thought processes. We may say things we don’t mean, lash out, or shut down. Mindfulness can help stay present and grounded, and encourage you to take care of yourself when you feel overstimulated and overwhelmed. Stop to think, breathe, and observe the situation holistically before you respond. 
  5. Above all, connection builds resilience. We regress because of the function of the system, not ourselves as individuals. Lean in to the larger group, and find ways to connect rather than hurt. Remember the concept of rift and repair. We, as imperfect human beings, will inevitably hurt each other and cause rifts in our relationships. What matters more than avoiding rifts, is repairing what hurt has been felt by all parties. The repair is immensely more powerful than the rift itself. 

The holidays are full of big and expressive emotions. It can be a lot to handle all at once. You are not alone, and you don’t have to do this alone. Be kind to yourself and give yourself grace. Be gentle with yourself and others as we all try to navigate the intensity and confusion of emotions and relationships. 

Helpful Reading for Further Information

  • The Family Crucible Augustus Y. Napier, Ph.D and Carl A. Whitaker, M.D. 
  • The Illustrated Happiness Trap Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett 
  • What Happened To You Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D and Oprah Winfrey