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When You Suddenly Feel Like a Child Around Your Parents

Our tendency to become childish when annoyed by our family is the result of a deeply-seated defensive mechanism. Here's how to help prevent the behavior.

There you are, an adult, visiting your family, when something — maybe a phrase your dad says or a backhanded compliment uttered by your brother-in-law — flips a switch in your brain. And no matter how self-assured a parent, employee, and friend you are in the world away from your family, suddenly you feel — and even act — like a 10-year-old again.

It happens. Family get-togethers always include second-helpings and second-guessing. The second guessings usually come after the family pokes holes in your new business ideas, flash faces of disapproval in the way you handle a parenting moment, or do something that undermines who you now are. Even more dangerous than the disapproving family, however, are the negative voices that creep into your head.

“In these moments, voices in our head start to second guess our actions, even if you had a foolproof plan,” says Danielle Knox, a clinical social worker who focuses on child and adolescent psychiatry. “As soon as mom and dad react in a less-than-thrilled way, you start to say things you feel aren’t even like you. You start to second-guess yourself and ask them what they think the plan should be.”

In other words, the more we fail to differentiate ourselves from our parents and siblings, and past experiences with them, the more likely we are to act out old behavior patterns. This reaction, known as regression, is entirely reasonable and healthy if kept under control. If not, it can be toxic.

Regression is both a defense mechanism and a psychological strategy used unconsciously to protect someone from the effects of unacceptable thoughts or feelings. It’s one of Freud’s seven common defense mechanisms, which also include repression, denial, projection, displacement, regression, and sublimation. Basically, when we’re troubled or frightened, our behaviors tend to become more childish or primitive; we go on the defensive.

“Regression happens to people when they feel stressed or anxious causing them to revert to old behaviors or habits they exhibited as a child because it is somewhat easier to do this than face the stressor,” says Jenny Noia-Gilson, a licensed clinical social worker. “It’s no wonder that, regardless of how successful one is in their professional or personal life, that this can happen when among family.”

So, how can you prevent yourself from getting bogged down in such feelings? Noia-Gilson stresses the importance of the pep talk before family get-togethers to remind yourself who you are and how far you have come. Sure, it might sound silly. But, per Noia-Gilson, it’s a simple way to get in the right frame of mind before family exposure.

If the dialogue isn’t doing the trick, it may be time to shut your eyes for a couple of minutes and talk to a younger version of yourself. This practice, known as “inner child work,” is a type of meditation focusing on speaking to the kid hiding inside all of us. That inner child represents your original self and encompasses a person’s capacity to experience joy, innocence, sensitivity, playfulness, and sense of wonder. It sometimes needs a little coaching to help deal with parents, siblings, and most of the outside world.

Admittedly it sounds a bit odd to take such measures. But contacting your inner child is simply a matter of reassuring that part of yourself that everything is going to be okay, the same way you might give yourself a bathroom mirror pep talk to psych yourself up before a big meeting. It’s about centering yourself to not react to what you perceive to be little slights.

“I would recommend less talking to it and more listening to it,” suggests Chris Lucas, founder of OmPractice. “Ask yourself a question and see what the answer sounds like. The answer is typically simple and straightforward and attuned to being happy. If it’s an overly complicated answer, it’s not from your inner child. It’s just you trying to get the answer you want.”

If chatting with your inner child is not for you, it’s helpful to seek support among the people who know your family the best — other members of your family.

“If you have a close relationship with a specific family member it might be helpful to talk about it with them,” suggests Noia-Gilson. The key is being specific about your feelings. Simply ask “Hey do you find yourself feeling like you are 13 again when we have Thanksgiving dinner?” or “Is it just me or does talking on the phone with Dad make you clam up and edit what you want to say?” If they do, the feeling of togetherness will help you cope or. If no one in your family gets it, it is better to process with friends or a therapist, adds Noia-Gilson.

Whether it’s a constant mantra, speaking with the kid inside, or openly telling everyone to stop treating you in a certain way, the change will not be instant. Everything takes time and effort. It all comes down to understanding your tendency to regress around your family and working to fight it. Whatever the case, know that feeling like a child around your family is not abnormal.

“Be one step in front of the behaviors,” says Knox. “If you know you tend to fight with your siblings like you did when you were 12, try to focus on not picking arguments or learning to get along as adults. It will help change the behavior over time.”