Riding the tiger – How family reunions bring out your inner child

Family reunions act like time machines. The identities and independence we created for ourselves come crashing down the moment we arrive in familiar circles. The matrix of generational dynamics has us acting and feeling the deja-vus of our inner child.

The Drama of Coming Home

Festive holidays often mean a coming home – figuratively, literally and nowadays also virtually. Because of tradition, good intentions and the part of us that is looking forward to reuniting, we tend to suppress some negative factors that soon start to aggravate.

“Tiger years are years of change and the tiger stands for quick action. This can mean hot temper and drama at home.”

Tom Jones

Clashing Past and Present

Holidays come with cultural and traditional norms and obligations plus expectations regarding the behaviour of hosts and guests alike. Oftentimes creating a screen of perfectionism or a facade of flawlessness. Returning to the familial home and community for the holidays creates pressure to conform to expected behavior which is now at odds with one’s identity.

The inner child awakens with more force when we are spending time with family members in close conditions. The wounds of our unmet, neglected and abused psychic needs start hurting more than usual. Research studies have shown that most people describe parts of their family relationships “conflicted or “ambivalent” and a significant prevalence of estrangement between family members. 

Four fundamental psychic needs

  1. Belonging & Attachment
    • The desire to belong, connection and community is essential to our survival and hence makes us all social beings. The child in us hardwires disruptions during early childhood from neglect, rejection, abandonment and abuse. Parenting shapes the attachment styles we internalise as adults.
  2. Autonomy & Safety
    • As much as we strive for belonging and attachment, we also long for exploration, self-expression and independence. Safety is gained through control. The more we are or feel in charge, the more we are or feel in control. “Control Freaks” are driven by the anxiety of dealing with uncertainty.
  3. Gratification & avoiding listlessness
    • Learning to tame this need correlates with success, but it also causes frustration and low mood. Spoiled children struggle with unfulfilled cravings often acting out in an agitated way. Unhealthy lifestyles are often connected with an excessive satisfaction of this need to compensate neglected other needs.
  4. Recognition & Acceptance
    • As social beings, we all seek recognition and acceptance from others to feed our sense of self-worth. Parents can equip us with a good amount of self-worth, which then protects us from being overly needy. However they can also fail to do so, which then often leads to behavioural patterns of people pleasing, self-sacrifice or approval seeking.

Acting out of inner conflict

Many of my clients in Hong Kong carry a strong inner conflict between autonomy and attachment. They find themselves in a zone of suffering between the pull of powerful, rich, egocentric, critical or traditional parents and the push of autonomic growth and control of their own educated, gifted and competent selfs.

Meeting with family typically induces a mixture of excitement and dread in many people.  However, with forethought and realistic expectations we can sidestep family drama and even create new positive memories. Old wounds may resurface and we easily fall into behavior patterns that are hauntingly familiar. 

Furthermore, the pressure is on to give the impression of our best selves, that we are living our best lives (thanks, social media!).  Such is the need for approval and acceptance that we will forego our autonomy.  The disparity between feelings and actions will distress the individual, making tensions between family members rise.

Nurturing your inner child and those of others

Self-awareness first

Work out when and how you are going to factor in self-care whilst you are out of your usual routine.  If you know being around people 24/7 is simply going to wear you out and you get grumpy when you get tired, plan for some downtime.  Even people who adore the holiday season and their families usually need a break to recharge.

Setting Boundaries

Before you get home, consider making it clear ahead of time exactly what activities and events you are willing to participate in this year.  Encourage others to do the same.  Setting such boundaries will protect you and your family in the long run. Did you know that setting boundaries makes you happier?  Setting realistic expectations ahead of time will prevent disappointment and the risk of others loading on emotional blackmail on the spot.

Lower your expectations

Rather than mentally trawling through the Rolodex of past grievances before you get home, filling your headspace with negativity, try to use this time for forethought by mindfully setting your own realistic expectations … and lowering them!!!  Acknowledging your own triggers ahead of time and accepting the family situation for what it is will help you to keep a cool head when you get there.  Ultimately, you can only control your own actions, trying to manage others will only lead to disappointment and frustration.

Activity vs Idle time

Plan plenty of (optional) activities for everyone to do together. Try getting active to shift any negative energy; go for a long walk in nature, pick a funny interactive board game or cook something together.  This could be the opportunity to forge new positive memories rather than focus on past hurts.  After all, research shows that our memories of past events are rarely accurate anyway.

Backing up for self-protection

Finally, work out your backup plan if everything gets too much.  Before conflict breaks out or someone says something hurtful, have a mental, emotional and practical “escape route” planned out when you feel the heat rising. 

Knowing you have this option sorted just in case ahead of time will improve the likelihood that you can distance yourself from the drama and retreat before you get sucked in.  It is about you being able to take a step back and consider the situation with perspective.