Holiday Regression in Young Adults: What It Is and How to Avoid ItReading Time: 8 minutes
When you’re home for the holidays, do you find yourself acting like a moody teenager again, getting irritated at every word your parents say? Maybe being back home makes you want to push your parents’ buttons, just because you can. Or you might find that no matter how much has changed since you lived at home, it’s way too easy to fall back into old patterns from a younger age, and get triggered by issues you thought you’d long since resolved.
If you’re the parent of a young adult, you might experience this from a different point of view. Do your grown kids roll their eyes when you ask a simple question? Do your competent, independent 20somethings suddenly seem unable to do anything for themselves? In the blink of an eye, your adult child can step into a time machine and emerge 13 years old all over again.
There’s a name for this phenomenon. It’s called regression, and the holidays are a prime catalyst.
- When triggered by family dynamics at the holidays, young adults may unconsciously regress to an earlier developmental stage to cope with stress.
- Places, sounds, and scents can spark memories that trigger regressive behavior when you’re home for the holidays.
- Young adults can avoid regressing during the holidays by practicing self-care, minimizing alcohol use, connecting with peers, and setting healthy boundaries.
- Sometimes a young adult’s regressive behavior may be caused by an underlying mental health issue.
Why Young Adults Regress When They’re Back Home
Regression is a psychological defense mechanism that causes people to revert to an earlier developmental stage in response to stress, anxiety, frustration, or a traumatic event. When young adults return home for the holidays, they often regress in response to stress-inducing family dynamics that can arise at this time of the year.
Sigmund Freud, often called “the father of modern psychology,” believed people regress to childhood to protect themselves from feeling uncomfortable emotions. It doesn’t matter if the roles and routines young people established in childhood are no longer relevant or useful.
When young people are home for the holidays and feel triggered, their knee-jerk reaction is often to revert to what’s familiar. According to one study, young adults are more likely than their older counterparts to use often unconscious defense mechanisms like acting out, passive-aggression, and regression to an earlier developmental stage.
What Triggers Regression?
Trauma researchers have discovered that places, sounds, and scents associated with difficult experiences can cause painful memories to resurface. These sensory experiences—like putting on an old winter coat left in your childhood closet or listening to a particular holiday song—can transport people to an earlier stage of life, and catalyze regressive behavior as a result.
In particular, scent has the power to evoke especially potent memories, according to recent research. That’s why the smell of apple pie baking or their grandfather’s cigar can cause a young adult to have an emotional reaction they couldn’t have predicted, for better or worse. This is known as involuntary age regression, as opposed to voluntary age regression, when a young adult consciously chooses to engage in regressive behaviors.
Why Are Holidays Stressful for Young Adults?
Old memories aren’t the only thing that cause stress for young adults, along with reversion to a younger state. When they’re home for the holidays there’s also the pressure that this time together be a joy-filled extravaganza. Some families get so caught up in the frenzy of decorating, meal-making, and gift-giving that all the fun gets drained away. The expectation that everything look perfect and everyone be merry causes stress in and of itself.
In addition, young adults are experiencing high levels of everyday stress. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2023 report, 58 percent of young adults (ages 18–34) feel overwhelmed by stress most of the time. And 68 percent say their stress level makes them more impatient with the people around them. Young adults may feel safer letting off steam with their parents when they’re home for the holidays, as opposed to taking out their stress on friends or colleagues.
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In addition, young adults may experience other symptoms that tend to get worse in response to holiday stressors. The mental and physical signs of stress include fatigue, anxiety, withdrawal, difficulty sleeping, disordered eating, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, dissociation, and increased substance use. These symptoms, along with regressive behaviors, may be signs of a larger mental health issue.
Know the Facts
50% of young adults (age 18–34) reported experiencing mental illness in 2023—more than any other age group.
What Young Adults Can Do to Avoid Holiday Age Regression
Young adults can equip themselves with strategies and tools to avoid regressing mentally when they’re home with family during the holiday season. If you find yourself wondering, Why am I regressing to chlldhood?, try these approaches to overcome holiday stress and ward off involuntary age regression.
Discuss Triggers Beforehand
Before the holiday season, have a call or get-together with your family. Tell them how you’re feeling about the holidays. Express your concerns and see what your parents can do to help mitigate them. It’s possible there are simple ways to avoid the triggers from holidays past, whether that’s a traumatic event or longstanding issues related to family dynamics.
Set Boundaries as Needed
Determine how much time you’re going to spend with a taxing relative and which holiday gatherings you might skip out on altogether. If you need to minimize your exposure to certain people or gatherings, do it. Take a time-out for an afternoon or stay at a friend’s house for a night or two. Your parents may not love this, but it’ll be better for your relationship in the long run.
People are more reactive when they’re drained. That’s why it’s so important to maintain your self-care routines (such as adequate sleep, exercise, and nutrition) during the holidays. You’ll be better able to think clearly, problem-solve effectively, and react calmly. If you feel jittery, take healthy steps to unwind. Go for a walk, do some yoga, or get to bed early.
Minimize Alcohol Use
Even though the holidays are a time when alcohol is everywhere, grabbing a drink to ease your stress has the potential to make things worse. When under the influence, people can have a more difficult time regulating emotions like anger. One study showed that the loss of inhibition that comes with alcohol consumption can increase the risk of domestic conflict. Keep your alcohol intake low to moderate. Here are some tips for how to drink less.
Connect with Who You Are Now
To reduce holiday regression, remind yourself of how much you’ve grown since you lived at home. Find a touchstone to reconnect you with your life now. FaceTime your current roommate or romantic partner—or bring your romantic partner home for the holidays. Spend time with friends who are also home for the holidays, and talk about your new lives rather than dredging up old complaints about your families. Take a more active role around the house now that you have independent living skills.
Stand Up Straight
Holiday regression can cause young adults to revert not only emotionally, but physically as well. Are you holding your breath, slouching, frowning, or looking at the ground to avoid uncomfortable interactions? Even though you might feel like curling up into a fetal position, commit to an adult posture. Plant your feet evenly on the ground, take a deep breath, and stand up tall. Notice how you feel when you do. Physically connecting with your sense of self-worth will ground you and help prevent you from regressing.
When you get emotionally and mentally entangled by holiday stress, practice mindfulness. Sit down. Set a time limit, perhaps five minutes. Tune in to how your body feels. Focus on your breath moving in and out. When your mind wanders, don’t judge it. Just return to your breath. Practicing mindfulness can reduce the symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. As you become more fully present, you’ll be able to notice when you’re slipping into patterns that are out of alignment with who you are now.
How Parents Can Support Their Grown Children During the Holidays
Even though your young adult kids are old enough to look out for themselves, you can still help ensure their holidays are more enjoyable than stressful by making a few simple adjustments yourself. As a bonus, you’re less likely to have to deal with juvenile behaviors as a result of your adult child’s stress-induced age regression.
Check In Beforehand
If your child hasn’t reached out to have a conversation about how to approach holiday gatherings, reach out to them. Find out what they’re looking forward to and what they’re most concerned about. Come up with a game plan to address their needs that doesn’t compromise your own.
Schedule One-on-One Time
Don’t let the holidays come and go in a rush of social commotion. Make sure you and your grown child have some one-on-one time. Find a day or evening to take a walk, go out for a meal, or just spend some quiet time together at home. Learning how to communicate with your adult child in a meaningful way can have a powerful effect on their long-term well-being. One recent study of more than 15,000 young Americans found that young people who reported higher levels of parent-to-child warmth, communication, time together, and relationship satisfaction had significantly higher levels of general health.
Respect their Autonomy
Remember: Your child isn’t a minor anymore. You need to respect their independence and their right to make their own decisions. Don’t expect them to follow the same rules they did as a teenager. If they’re headed out in the evening, you can ask them to call or text to let you know if they’re not coming home, but it’s no longer appropriate to set a curfew. Treating in a more adult manner will help reduce their holiday stress and regressive behavior.
Don’t Fall into Old Parenting Habits
When parents and adult children are home for the holidays, it’s easy to fall back into old patterns. The parent may wash all the dishes, do everyone’s laundry, or remind the child to straighten up their room. Resist the urge to fall into these old habits. Remember that your young adult can take care of themselves and will benefit from doing so. (This is especially important if your young adult is moving back home.)
Is Regressive Behavior a Sign of a Larger Mental Health Issue?
A certain level of age regression is natural when young adults come home for the holidays. Sometimes they may simply be exhausted by “adulting” and revert to a younger state because they simply want to be taken care of. However, regressive behavior can point to a larger mental health issue.
When young adults are easily triggered or their regressive behaviors seem extreme, they might be struggling with unresolved childhood trauma. Individuals with a history of significant trauma may dissociate when triggered, leading to regressive behaviors such as an inability to manage their emotions and self-care. Research shows that regressing mentally to a younger state can also be a sign of major depression, borderline personality disorder, or a dissociative disorder, such as dissociative identity disorder.
Watch for other mental health warning signs in addition to regressive behaviors, including:
- Mood changes
- Social isolation
- Unhealthy relationships
- Poor self-care
- Lack of motivation
- Increased substance use as a coping mechanism for distress
Should Young Adults Start Treatment During the Holidays?
Entering treatment for mental health conditions may not seem appealing to young adults, even when they know they need help. However, treatment is important even during the holidays—and can be life transforming. Moreover, treatment that includes family therapy can help parents and young adult children work through challenging family dynamics and improve their relationships.
In fact, experiencing age regression in response to holiday stressors may be the push young adults need to seek mental healthcare. The first step is a consultation with a doctor or mental health professional who can conduct a full mental health assessment.
Here are five reasons for young adults to start residential treatment during the holiday season.
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Our team of medical and mental health professionals is highly experienced in helping young people heal from anxiety, depression, substance use issues, attachment wounds, and trauma. Family is involved in treatment as appropriate, to strengthen relationships and address ruptures, conflicts, and misunderstandings.
Get started on the healing journey: Contact us today to schedule a free mental health assessment.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does young adult age regression mean?
Young adult age regression is an often unconscious defense mechanism that causes young people to revert to behavior they exhibited at a younger age.
What can cause age regression in young adults when they’re home for the holidays?
Young adults may regress to teenage behavior at the holidays as a coping mechanism in response to stress. Or they may be triggered by their surroundings to backslide into old patterns of behavior associated with childhood trauma.
What are 5 young adult coping skills for holiday stress relief?
Engaging in self-care, practicing mindfulness, setting boundaries, connecting with friends, and minimizing alcohol use are five ways young adults can reduce holiday stress.
How do holidays affect mental health?
For some people, holidays create additional financial, practical, and emotional stress. Traveling, buying gifts, and family dynamics during the holiday season can all be stressful. One of the biggest holiday stressors is the pressure to have a “perfect” holiday, which isn’t realistic for most families.