You are an adult, a fully grown, perfectly competent human who has evolved beyond childhood silliness and adolescent surliness. So it’s really too bad that this is all going to go away the moment you enter your family’s holiday gathering this week.
When families come back together, they often have a habit of reverting to the same roles and routines established years ago, even when those patterns are no longer relevant or at all useful. You know you’re not the person you used to be, but no matter; from the way your family treats you, you may as well still be whoever you were when they knew you way back when. Likewise, maybe you slip right back into childhood, lazily refusing to make your bed or help with the dishes.
It’s likely a holdover of something social scientists call family systems theory, a concept describing the interlocking behavioral patterns that develop within a family. Think of it like the familial offshoot of general systems theory, an idea often associated with engineering or biology that says nothing acts independently; each piece functions as a part of a whole. “Families tend to have these processes that govern the way that people relate to each other,” says Laurie Kramer, a professor at the University of Illinois who studies family dynamics. “There are all these rules — even if they’re not explicit, they may be implicit, but they do act very powerfully to guide a lot of the ways we relate to each other.”
When this system is working well, the routines help get things done; imagine, for instance, if every morning parents had to decide once again who was responsible for breakfast and who was responsible for driving the kids to school. These patterns helped develop the way families interact with one another, “so it’s no wonder, when we get back home, that we are pulled into the way that we have always related to some of these individuals,” Kramer says. “It’s part of an unconscious accepting of those rules, and everyone else’s acceptance in the environment working to pull us right back in. And, unfortunately, sometimes that means relating to people as if we were all at that earlier period in time when we were all younger.”
If this is happening mainly at an unconscious level, then simply becoming aware that this is what’s happening might be a small first step in helping you break out of your old family role if it no longer fits. According to systems theory, the pattern “will operate that way until it’s challenged,” says Shawn Whiteman, a family-studies professor at Purdue University who says that typically this means a substantial challenge: deaths, births, marriages. If you find yourself lacking in these things, then the alternative is to just keep at it. “It’s sort of like what goes on in therapy,” says Daniel Shaw, a psychologist who studies family dynamics at the University of Pittsburgh. “The goal of psychotherapy is to not have a reflexive reaction of a coping strategy that gets you in trouble. … You can talk about it, but actually changing it is going to take some effort — because people are used to treating you a certain way and thinking they know you, right? So it would take a concerted effort on your part — it doesn’t have to be dramatic, but a series of events that suggest to your parents or your sibs that ‘Wow, she’s changed.’”
That means, Shaw says, that around your family you should consciously and consistently speak and behave the way you act in your regular life. “So, for instance, if you’ve always been the cooperative one at home, for you to say, ‘Actually, I don’t really think that’s good for me to do that,’ you’d probably get a look back of surprise — but then they’d probably say, ‘Oh, she’s having a bad day, don’t worry about it,” he continues. “But then to do it again, to sustain it? Essentially, it’s kind of a learning. …The parents and sibs are going to keep treating you the way they always did unless there are repeated learnings to the contrary.” It takes time, in other words, and is unfortunately not something you can do in the dwindling hours that currently stand between you and the holiday.
But forget about yourself for one moment and consider the way you are treating everyone else in your family, points out Katherine Conger, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis. If you are feeling boxed into the family role you used to play as a teenager, chances are everyone else in the family is, too. “My students laugh when I bring this up, but I tell them: ‘Pretend they’re your friends. Treat them like you would treat your friends,’” Conger says. This applies to siblings in particular, she says and suggests telling yourself, “This is somebody who is going to be in my life my entire life.”
Or, you know, if all else fails, there is always Adele.