Why Family Holidays Are So Difficult

School life is familiar, family life isn't

Posted Jul 11, 2015

Out of the blue, in the middle of the school holidays, fifteen-year-old Garry emails me. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing! I keep having arguments with my mum and dad, I can’t be bothered to get out of bed, all my friends are away and I’m bored. I’m so bored! I hate my life! Last night I started cutting again….”

Young people spend most of their waking hours at school. At school more than anywhere else, they know who they are; they know what’s expected of them; they know how to be. However unpleasant the experience, at least it’s a familiar one. So when he’s with his friends, Garry’s the joker; in class, he’s diligent; on the sports field, he’s hopeless. With friends or in lessons or on the sports field, he knows how to be. These roles may be constraining, but at least they’re clear.

Back at home, things aren’t so clear. During term-time, his role is to wake up, leave the house on time, come back and do his homework, eat and go to bed. But during the holidays, none of this happens. He has no task, no purpose. He can’t plead homework and go to his room to avoid family interactions.

Months ago, he was cutting his arms, feeling that no one understood. Our counselling sessions started and his cutting stopped. Starting to cut again now (according to his email) makes sense as a way of trying to re-connect with something familiar, an old friend.

Who we’re with is who we are. Chameleon-like, we adapt to different environments, becoming the person we’re required to be in order to deal with different situations. It takes years to be able to relax without having endlessly to adapt, adapt, adapt to new environments.

Because of all this, holidays are really difficult for many young people. Deprived of the roles they’re accustomed to playing in school, they find themselves lounging around at home or wandering aimlessly around town in search of a role. So rows erupt at home. Some young people like Garry sink into despondency. Some young people storm out of the house, unable to be with the rest of the family because it feels too weird. Some regress, remembering what it was like to play the role of irresponsible child, having tantrums and refusing to do things. They revert to that familiar role because the role of emerging adult, the person who takes responsibility, stays calm and helps out around the house is too unfamiliar, too uncomfortable. And as for going away on a family holiday! Some young people refuse to go, preferring to stay at home, hoping that they’ll see their friends and be able to re-establish some of the old routines, even without school.

I imagine that Garry’s emailed me in the middle of the holidays because our relationship is another familiar thing to fall back on. With me, he can resume the role of panic-stricken, upset, angry boy in need of counselling. I reply to his email, saying something about the weirdness of holidays and families, the inevitability of being an outsider as well as an insider, the discomfort of being in transition.

I sympathise with him. In a sense, all young people are in transition, clinging to the familiar while sensing that everything’s changing and there’s nothing they can do about it. Screaming at your parents, storming out of the house or cutting your arms are simply ways of trying to slow down the process.

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