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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Psychotherapy Blog: Regressing to Feeling Like a Child Again During Family Visits

What is it about family visits that make so many people regress to feeling like young children again? How is it possible that people who function very well in their every day lives--whether they're teachers, firefighters, or CEOs of major corporations--can be reduced to feeling like helpless children during a visit home to their families?

Regressing to Feeling Like a Child Again During Family Visits

Mother's Day is around the corner. For many people, it's a time that they look forward to seeing their parents and siblings. They're fortunate to have nurturing relationships with their families, so going home is a positive experience. But for others, who are not as fortunate, going home to see parents is fraught with conflict and stress. Some people describe family visits as if they are tiptoeing through an area filled with land mine. They feel they must think carefully before they broach any topic that might set off either an argument or emotional estrangement.

Many people are surprised that they can feel so confident and mature in their every day life, but when they return to family's home, they feel like children again. They find themselves reacting to the same old emotional triggers that caused problems between themselves and their families when they were growing up.

Mother's Day can be especially challenging. When faced with a family visit on Mother's Day, many clients tell me that the challenge begins with choosing a Mother's Day card. As they describe it, no card quite fits, especially if they've had a conflictual relationship with their mothers. The cards that go on and on about being a perfect, loving mother don't ring true to them and makes them feel uncomfortable. And the less descriptive cards feel like they're inadequate. The next challenge for many people is choosing the "right" gift. As one client said to me, "Nothing ever seems good enough."

The following scenario, which is a composite of many clients with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, is an example of the challenges that many people face when they visit their families on holidays and feel themselves regressing back to their childhood:

Roger:
Roger was known in his firm as a tough and tenacious litigator. Whenever his law firm had a difficult case, the senior partners would call on Roger because he had a reputation for being one of the best attorneys in his field. He loved his work and would often spend long hours preparing for a case. He was also in a loving, stable, long-term relationship with his girlfriend, and they planned to get married.

On most days, Roger felt like he was on top of the world. He never backed away from a challenge. But all of that changed whenever he went home for a family visit, especially on Mother's Day. As he described it, he could feel himself transforming from a successful, mature adult to an angry child the moment he set foot in his parents' house. Both his mother and father overwhelmed him with unsolicited "advice" that felt like veiled criticism about everything from how to maintain his apartment to how to manage his money.

He could feel the anger rising up in him during those times because he felt infantilized by his parents. It didn't seem to matter that he was already in his early 40s, he earned a very good living, he owned several properties, he had a good relationship and good friends, and he was generally considered a very successful person by most people's standards. Notwithstanding of all this, his parents felt the need to tell him what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, and this infuriated Roger.

But what infuriated Roger the most was that he "took the bait" in these situatons every time. Even though he vowed to himself each time not to allow his parents to get him angry, he always reverted back to feeling like the angry child that he was when he lived at home with his parents. Once this dynamic was set in motion, he felt himself sliding down that same old emotional slippery slope every time.

This was Roger's presenting problem when he started psychotherapy. He wanted to be able to visit his parents (whom he really loved, despite how angry he often felt towards them) and maintain his sense of himself as a competent adult without the emotional regression. He wanted to be able to spend quality time with them without feeling emotionally triggered by their behavior when they treated him like a child.

To that end, after exploring his childhood relationship with his parents, Roger and I planned for his next visit on Mother's Day. He already knew that his mother tended not to like his Mother's Day card or any gift that he gave her. He knew that, even though his parents were well meaning, they still saw him as their youngest child who needed their "advice." He also knew that something happened to him whenever he was in their presence. He felt trapped, like a child who could not leave his parents' home and who was forced to endure behavior that humiliated and infuriated him.

Regressing to Feeling Like a Child Again During Family Visits

Before his next Mother's Day visit, Roger and I strategized about how he would maintain his sense of self as a competent, mature adult, and how he could set limits with his parents. Since these visits always made him feel anxious, we role played various scenarios which often occurred on his visits home. With practice, Roger felt more competent about handling the upcoming family visit. And whereas he usually did not feel entitled to set limits with his parents because he regressed emotionally to feeling like a child, with practice in our sessions, he was able to internalize that he was entitled to be treated like an adult. And if his parents had a need to treat him like a child, for whatever reason, that was their problem and he would not allow it to affect him.

On that Mother's Day, Roger visited his parents armed with the strategies that we had practiced in our sessions. He was still nervous and feared that he would sink back down into feeling like an angry, helpless child again before he would be able to implement these strategies. He also feared that his parents would not respond well to his setting limits with them. Nevertheless, he was able to stand his ground as soon as the unsolicited "advice" and veiled criticism started coming his way. At first, his parents seemed surprised. They had never experienced Roger push back before. But contrary to Roger's fears, he was able to set limits with his parents in a loving, tactful but firm way. It made him feel confident and empowered. And, from that day forward, his parents stopped treating him like a child, and he stopped feeling like a child in their presence.

Visiting your family on holidays like Mother's Day or Christmas can be an emotional challenge. But you can learn to change the dynamic between you and your parents during these visits. Often, when you change your way of relating to your parents, they will learn to respond to you as an adult and not a child. Often, the key is to learn what triggers your regression from a mature adult to feeling like a child and learn ways not to get triggered. That might mean setting limits on what your parents say to you, how they treat you or your partner, or it might mean spending less time with them during these visits, but making that time as enjoyable and meaningful as possible.

I knew a woman who used to hold onto her car keys in her pocket whenever she went home to visit her parents. Holding the car keys in her hand was a reminder to her that she was a mature adult who was not trapped in her parents' home like she was when she was a child. After a while, she no longer needed to do this because she internalized these feelings without the keys as "props."

Emotional regression during family visits is a common experience. Psychotherapy is often helpful to overcome these feelings. But there are no one-size-fits all strategies. Every person's experience is unique. If visiting home brings up more intense feelings, like the type of feelings that come up that are related to childhood trauma, EMDR treatment or clinical hypnosis can be valuable in helping you to overcome trauma.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 email me.

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