Well it’s that time of year again, a time of love, laughter, a wee tipple and peace toward all men (and women, animals and children of course). We were chatting about the holiday season the other day, and I recounted a story about the first time I went home to stay with my family in Australia after moving to the UK many years ago – after spending two weeks with them, I vowed never again for so long and that a week would henceforth be the maximum familial sojourn before breaking out elsewhere. At some point in time, despite all the best love, will and effort in the world, eventually we can all revert to type. Families can sometimes digress to old, and comfortable, modes of behaviour and interaction and start acting out the age old patterns and interrelationships that are familiar to us from our childhood and youth. And despite having now ‘evolved and grown’, we can sometimes catch ourselves behaving like the ‘youngest, oldest, middle (or whatever your version is) child’ that we are neatly being pigeon-holed into by our nearest and dearest. So, how do we enter into our beloved family unit and remain true to ourselves and not get caught up in the ‘drama’ and ‘history’ of our familial archetypes?
A really useful distinction to have in mind is that of ‘Adult’ to ‘Adult’ interactions – this distinction comes from Transactional Analysis – TA (a type of applied psychology). What they suggest is that there are three behaviours that you can take in any human interaction; ‘Parent’, ‘Adult’ or ‘Child’. As you read these three words, you probably have an instinctive idea of what each represents. ‘Parent’ behaviour is ‘telling’ and sometimes bossy. A ‘Child’ responds by being sulky, uncooperative and doesn’t take responsibility (or abdicates it to others). ‘Adults’, on the other hand, have respect for self and others and maintain a balanced view of the situation.
What you may find over Christmas is that family members assume certain TA behaviours, and exhibiting these behaviours can lead to others responding to them with either the same or the opposite behaviour: ‘Parent’ to ‘Parent’, ‘Parent’ to ‘Child’, or ‘Child’ to ‘Child’ (or vice versa). It’s often people assuming these behaviours that lead to arguments and conflicts; two ‘Parents’ will fight about how things ‘should be done’, with ‘Parent’ to ‘Child’ - a ‘Parent’ is controlling and will boss someone exhibiting ‘Child’ behaviour around (or control by silence) and leave them feeling sulky or ‘hard done by’. This isn’t about your position in the family; it’s about the behaviour being exhibited (remember in NLP ‘People are not their Behaviour’). You can often find the eldest member of the family behaving in the ‘Child’-like way. And likewise, siblings behaving like ‘Parents’ and the mother and father responding like ‘Children’ – simpering and trying to make them love each other and get along.
As an illustration, someone we know told us their story. The family consisted of a mother with two adult daughters. At Christmas time, the mother would work herself into a frazzle – trying to get everything done on her own. By the time the daughters arrived, the mother would have worked herself into a hysterical wreck, sulked and felt hard done by, and would be holed up in bed (‘Child’). This would lead the daughters to be angry that she’d messed up Christmas, being selfish again, and leaving them to deal with the fall-out alone (‘Parent’). It would have been far healthier for all involved if the mother had behaved more like an ‘Adult’ and asked for help beforehand. Or indeed, what difference would it have made if the daughters had assumed an ‘Adult’ response to the mother rather than being critical ‘Parents’? They could have spread the work between them – with all of them spending time together as a family (isn’t that what it’s all about), having an equal and balanced responsibility, with perhaps with a good laugh along the way.
Of course, sometimes behaving like a ‘Child’ is absolutely the right response in certain situations – as long as it’s appropriate. Being playful and impish can be the perfect behaviour at Christmas time, especially if there are actual children or animals to play with.
For example, whilst playing charades it’s perfectly appropriate to embrace our ‘Child’, have fun and enjoy the game – indeed, this is embodying healthy ‘Adult’ behaviour (the ability to use either ‘Child’ or ‘Parent’ energy appropriately and with consciousness). However, being completely silly and throwing cake at opponents whilst playing may not be appropriate and will bring out the ‘Parent’ in the others involved.
We don’t want to overload you with too much information just now. So let this bubble away in your unconscious mind over the next few days, thinking about which version of you shows up in what situation, and join us next week to find out how you can be more actively conscious in your responses.Andy