Do Your Parents Still Treat You Like a Child?

Maybe it’s because you’re acting like one!

Posted Dec 20, 2017 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Mangostar/Shutterstock
Source: Mangostar/Shutterstock

by Sue Kolod, Ph.D.

During the holiday season and beyond, many people look forward to spending time with family. The warmth and familiarity are undeniable, but those visits also may come with the threat of arguments and the renewal of bad feelings. How can we avoid the bad parts and simply enjoy time together?

We psychologists have a theory called regression, which in general terms means reverting to childhood roles and behavior. This can especially happen during stressful times, including major family events, when all of a sudden, a middle-aged adult is acting like a 14-year-old.

Why does this happen?

To our parents, we will always be a child, no matter our age. Even if you are a mature person, your parents may still worry that you are not eating well, not wearing warm enough clothes in the winter, not hanging out with the right people, or not fulfilling your dreams. As your parent’s child, you may automatically respond to these worries with the same frustration and defensiveness you experienced when you were a child trying to establish your independence. 

This type of regression is often self-reinforcing — in other words, your parent says or does something that reminds you of your childhood struggle for independence, inducing stress; you then respond as you did as a child; and your parent, in turn, treats you like you’re still a bratty teen

Take Melanie, a successful lawyer in her mid-40s. As a teenager, she was irresponsible, always arrived late, and had problems with drugs and alcohol. Since then, she’s pulled her life together. However, when she goes home for the holidays, her parents still remember that flaky, irresponsible daughter who caused them so much worry. When Melanie is reminded of this by their actions or words, she is, naturally, irritated and upset that her family seems to ignore how much she has changed. She is hypersensitive to jokes about her lateness or stories of past bad behaviors, which put her on the defensive with her family and set her up for fights with them.

Doug is a photographer in his mid-30s. Although his parents and siblings have always known that he is talented, for years he was unable to make much money. Now he is finally able to support himself and is gaining a reputation in the field. When he goes home to see his family, though, his parents fall back into their habit of concern and worry about his financial situation. He experiences their concern as a lack of faith in him, and a refusal to see what everyone else in his life sees — that he is becoming a success. When this dynamic gets going, he becomes sullen, reinforcing his parents’ concern that he hasn’t grown up.

How to prevent regressing

If you feel that family members are treating you like a child, particularly the child you used to be but are no longer, try not to react in a defensive, knee-jerk manner. Stay calm, step back, and reflect on how they are making you feel. Then decide to react in a manner that will not reinforce their image of you as a dependent child.

Here are some things to try instead:

  • When family members tease you about past behaviors you have outgrown or overcome, don’t be offended. If you get angry or defensive, that may provoke more teasing. If you don’t respond, they will probably stop.
  • Don’t be afraid to remind the family of your success. They love to hear about it!
  • Keep in mind that if your parents express worry or concern about your future, it doesn’t mean they think you are still a child or will fail. Worrying about your child, even your adult child, is a common reaction in parents. It’s really about them, not you.
  • Sibling rivalry is present throughout the life cycle. You may feel that your brother gets all the attention, or that your sister is more loved. When this seems to occur at family gatherings, it can be very painful. However, what you may not realize is that your envied brother or sister probably has his or her own reasons to envy you. Try to keep that in mind.
  • If you have children yourself, notice the ways in which you may induce regressive behavior in them by treating them in ways that remind them of times when they were more dependent than they are now.
  • Offer to help cook, do the dishes, or run errands. If you’re feeling stressed or picked on, go for a walk, watch a movie, or start talking to those family and friends who aren’t behaving this way towards you.

Remember: Regression is a two-way street. When you get together, your parents are regressing, too. So when they, or other relatives, start to treat you like a child, the worst reaction is to start acting like one.

Susan Kolod, Ph.D., is Chair of the Committee on Public Information and editor of the blog Psychoanalysis Unplugged at the American Psychoanalytic Association.