It happens every year, as reliably as the Queen’s speech, or a mulled wine hangover. You arrive back home for Christmas a mature, reasonable adult, but before you’ve even had time to make intelligent conversation about interest rates – BAM! You’re 15 again. You’re slamming doors, answering back at the dinner table and wrestling a sibling for control of the bumper Radio Times. I like to call it The Big Regression.
When The Big Regression hits, all the sulky, stroppy tendencies you thought you’d grown out of suddenly descend. Those family quirks that seem so charming when you’re several hundred miles away become unbearable at close-range. When it’s just you, your father’s penny whistle collection, your sister-in-law’s climate change denial and several bottles of Bristol Cream sherry to get you through to New Year.
There’s something about being back in your parents’ house – or even just in proximity to relatives for longer than a day – that can cause even the most grounded, emotionally evolved among us to revert to quasi-adolescence. The stresses and excesses of the Christmas period only add to the moody pressure-cooker (not to mention an actual Christmas period, if you’re that unlucky) and it’s so easy to slip back into the same old habits, tensions and battles. I’m not a psychologist so I can’t tell you exactly why this happens, but I’ll hazard a guess that the all booze, sugar and sofa beds probably don’t help.
Yes, The Big Regression is traditional – but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Here are a few ways to make this the Christmas you keep your inner teen in check.
Volunteer, don’t domineer
“Emotional labour” might be the feminist buzz phrase of the year, but that doesn’t mean we have permission to offload all of ours the moment we cross the family hearth. This year, don’t wait to be asked to help. Be proactive and find a chore to make yours. Bake something. Peel something. Clean something. Babysit someone, be they infant or difficult auntie. Whatever you do, crucially, do it before anybody has to nag you to. Chalk up some points on the helpful slate now, they’ll always be useful later.
But whatever you help with, make sure it’s just that – helping. Not project managing or taking over. Unless you’re expressly asked for your opinions, try to act more like a polite houseguest and less like Gordon Ramsay on a rescue mission. Which leads us to…
Don’t be a walking TripAdvisor review
One of the most reliable sources of family tension at Christmas is what I like to call “Fancy Waysing”. You come back here with your fancy ways – be they fancy city ways, fancy modern ways or just any way of doing things vaguely different from their own – and then proceed to slag everything off. The coffee isn’t real, the bread isn’t sourdough, the sprouts aren’t al dente. Why don’t they pan-roast the carrots with orange zest instead of boiling them into mush? Why don’t they get faster broadband, or a TV remote that works? Why doesn’t anywhere in this stupid village sell oat milk? And so on. You feel frustrated, they feel attacked, nobody wins.
There are two ways to deal with the Fancy Waysing. Number one: just shh. Suck it up and live like it’s 2002 again for a few days. It didn’t kill you then, and it won’t kill you now.
Number two: evangelise, don’t criticise. You want to broaden your family’s horizons because you love them, remember, not because they’re backwater hicks with no taste. Repeat after me: “I know this really great recipe for carrots I thought I could make for you!” “While I’m here, I could call BT and sort out the internet problems?” “Merry Christmas, here’s a Nespresso machine!” You get the idea.
This will mean putting clothes on between Christmas and New Year, which I know is a big ask, but it’ll be worth it if you can swerve the usual fight about whose fault it was the garage flooded in 1999. Just as you feel yourself start to slip into “misunderstood John Hughes movie character” mode, put on a pair of boots and a podcast and go for a brisk walk. Take other fugitives with you too, if you can. But resist the urge to engineer a family field trip if it’s likely to end up with everyone griping at each other on a hilltop because somebody left the Thermos in the car. Fresh air can only work so much magic.
Family Christmas traditions are lovely, sure. But it’s worth remembering that many of them started because you were a child who couldn’t sit still for 20 minutes without elaborate distraction. As doggedly sticking to the same nostalgic routine every year is probably part of the reason you regress to a childish mindset, don’t be afraid to abandon a few rituals (is leaving a mince pie out for Father Christmas really necessary when the youngest member of the family is 24?). Start new traditions instead. And if you must weep about the cruel onward march of time and the magic of Christmas being lost forever, do it quietly in the garden.
Meanwhile if parents and older relatives are the ones digging their heels in, try gently suggesting changes – for example, that you do a family Secret Santa rather than spending money on a million presents each, or that moving lunch back a couple of hours might make for a more harmonious morning. Suggest it well in advance though, not at 1pm on Christmas Day as furious tea towel is whistling past your ear.
Phone a friend
I know, we’re millennials, it goes against our very nature. But while your WhatsApp groups make great festive support networks, spending the whole week tapping away furiously on your phone is only going to exacerbate the sullen adolescent vibes. So lean into the teen nostalgia in a good way instead, and call a friend for a proper chat. Let off steam, swap family bugbears, remind yourself you’re an adult with an independent life of your own. Then go back downstairs and trash them all at Pictionary.
Bring in reinforcements
Even better than a phone call, consider inviting a friend home for Christmas – if not for the whole shebang then just a day, a meal, whatever’s practical. The presence of an impartial outsider can really help keep everyone on their best behaviour, you included, and it makes the atmosphere wholly more festive. Seeing your family through someone else’s eyes might just help you appreciate their value. And if not, at least you have a witness.
Set your boundaries
It isn’t realistic to say Christmas shouldn’t be a time for real talk. Hoping to avoid any discussion of your future, your career, your relationships, your life choices or your political differences is probably naïve – and besides, emotional stock-takes are as much a part of the festive season as cinnamon.
But that doesn’t mean you need to resign yourself to yelling “LEAVE ME ALONE, GAAAAHHD” whenever a round of questioning begins. Try bringing up the most sensitive topics on your own terms, early on and in the right frame of mind, then finish by saying: “Anyway, I’d rather not keep talking about it over Christmas please – but I promise I’ll keep you posted in the new year!”
It might work, it might not. But whatever happens, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you have many things now that your teenage self didn’t – including a better understanding of human behaviour, more compassion for your family’s foibles, and an appreciation of how lucky you are to have them at all.
More importantly, you get to leave again. Hopefully with a bag full of leftovers.