There's a joke that captures the feeling of "regression" that many adults experience when they go home to spend the holidays with their families. It goes like this: For every day you're home with your family, you lose five years. So you should keep your trip short enough that you'll be old enough to drive away.
Many adult children know well that returning to the nest can be even more challenging than visiting your parents in another context. You might go home for the holidays and suddenly be surprised to find yourself behaving like a 16-year-old: You fight with your mom over doing chores or going out with your friends instead of participating in family activities. Maybe you're still criticizing your little brother and his new girlfriend -- or you return to that teenage insecurity of feeling like you can never do anything right.
"It's variable. At different stages of your life you might regress more or less," Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Emory University and editor of the Journal of Family Psychology, told The Huffington Post. "Maybe you go back to your room, which may still be more decorated like a child's room. You return to the patterns you had when you lived there. It's challenging, especially early on, to find your way as an adult."
While regressing doesn't happen for everyone, it is a fairly common occurrence. And it's most common among 20-somethings, according to Kaslow. There's often more flexibility and ease in the relationship once children establish themselves as adults and perhaps start their own families.
But regression can persist until late in life. As psychologist and family counselor Marie Hartwell-Walker, EdD, wrote in a PsychCentral blog, old family roles die hard.
"Never underestimate the seductive draw of what is familiar," Hartwell-Walker wrote. "It just feels natural to snap back into our well-rehearsed part. The 'responsible one' volunteers for more than she really wants to do. The 'baby' goes back to playing the cute card in spite of herself. When with her dad, the independent woman can slip once again into the 'princess' role she had as a child while her brother starts to swagger a bit like his former teenage jock self."
Regression is most common when there's a struggle to transition the parent-child relationship into an adult-adult relationship. Having a successful adult relationship with your parents requires that you feel able to be your own person, and that you're able to assert yourself without arguments or power struggles, said Kaslow.
For instance, if you bring home a significant other and would like to sleep in the same bed together, but your parents won't allow that, it's important to negotiate the situation as adults.
"It might mean you have to get a hotel room ... if you want to respect the family values," said Kaslow. "If you just disrespect what they say, then you're like a teenager. But if you just do it because they say so and not because it's right for you, then you're not really being an adult either."
Unresolved family conflicts can also make it difficult for family members to break free from old roles and break out of old habits that no longer serve them. "Those families also have a harder time switching to developing those adult relationships," said Kaslow.
In a healthy adult relationship, information and stories about one's life are shared equally between parents and children. The parent and adult child can engage in shared activities together, but there is also a level of freedom for alone time.
In an unhealthy relationship, the parents are often critical or unwilling to adjust old traditions to bring in new ideas and traditions. But don't confuse parental care, affection or doting for an unhealthy inability to change old habits -- your parents will always see you as their child, and may enjoy the feeling of taking care of you.
Creating an adult relationship with your parents starts with taking responsibility yourself to make compromises and respect their wishes -- even if it means dishing out the cash for that hotel room.