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How to Avoid Holiday Regression at Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving just days away, it’s time to shine a light on holiday regression – the phenomenon when we revert to our 8-year-old selves among family during the holidays. The good news is you can learn how to rise above holiday regression at Thanksgiving.

The first step is to recognize it when it happens. Maybe this scenario sounds familiar?

The Thanksgiving Eve is full of fun, laughter, and love. Thursday, as we prepare for our Thanksgiving feast, the cocktails start flowing. Then bam! Between mouthfuls of turkey and mashed potatoes, one sibling gets offended, everyone goes on high alert, and the familiar dance begins. Some people raise their voices. Some play peacemaker. And some exit stage left. (What’s your reactive tendency? I’m normally a peacemaker, but with holiday regression, I tend to skedaddle to escape the drama.)

Although we may function as mature adults in the majority of our lives, at Thanksgiving dinner, we too often regress to the defensive patterns from childhood, practically on cue.

Reversion to the “Mean”

When we’re kids, we learn our rights and wrongs from our family; we look inward, toward our nuclear families for safety. But when we are kids, let’s be honest, we aren’t that nice to each other. We’re not trustworthy. We’re selfish. This is a normal stage of development (most) everyone passes through,[i] yet that’s when our earliest sibling memories are formed.

When we become high schoolers, we start to look outward. We prioritize fitting in with our classmates over whatever noise is happening at home. This is also a normal phase of growing into adulthood. However, after high school, we typically launch into the world with post-secondary education and/or work, and we never look back to the nuclear family until the holidays.

Once we regather as a family, we re-engage just like the last time we were in close relationship with each other: before we were in high school. We revert to the immature behavior patterns that feel familiar. (Our partners see it first, before we can see it ourselves.)

The Antidote to Holiday Regression at Thanksgiving

The antidote to this reliable and unfortunate dance is maturing our sibling relationships. Immature sibling relationships can mature into adult relationships, with intentional effort.

Here’s how we did it in my family. Once we realized that we treated each other much worse than we treated our friends, we decided to gather monthly by phone. The goal was to disrupt the pattern we witnessed in our father’s generation. They never got along as kids, much less adults. When their parents died, you can only imagine how much worse it got when executing their estate.

With that greater purpose in mind, we held “G5 Summits” (we are five siblings, and we modeled ourselves after the G7, now G20 Summits among nations. Cheeky, we know.) Our first summit was devoted to reaching agreement on communication protocols. It took ninety painful minutes! But it laid the foundation for the rest of our calls.

Over time, we genuinely matured our sibling relationships. We talked about what we’d want to see happen when a parent’s health deteriorated, or when a parent died. We played out scenarios; some ideal, some dire. We talked about what fair means to each of us individually, and what fair would mean to us as a group. We didn’t always agree, but we learned to listen to each other and take in different perspectives.

We also spent time one-on-one with each other, investing in private, personal relationships. Although this was sometime difficult because there was tension in some pairs, the investments we made with individual siblings served as an accelerant to our maturity as a group.

We no longer hold regular G5 Summits, but any sibling can call an ad hoc G5 Summit for any reason. Thankfully, both our parents are still living, so executing the estate hasn’t yet been stress-tested. However, we have experienced several health crises in the family, and I’m happy to say, we did great. We are a more resilient, more supportive, more mature sibling group because of the investment we made in ourselves.

And our Thanksgivings are much more enjoyable!

Note: You can mature your relationship with your parents too.

Holiday Regression and Family Business

Without intentionally maturing family relationships, the holiday regression phenomenon can occur every day in a family business. (Our non-family employees see it first, before we can see it ourselves.) Not only is it painful to experience, it’s also destructive to the business. Anger burns emotional energy, leaving less in the tank to fuel business possibilities.

Family businesses who have invested in building trusting, adult relationships have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. So, if you regularly experience the holiday regression phenomenon, ask yourself:

· Am I my best self at work when I’m with family members?

· Does my work behavior provoke immature reactions in other family members?

· With whom do I need to grow up?

· Who do I need to “rebrand” in my mind, so I don’t see them as a kid anymore?

· How can we change the dance we all know too well?

I talk about this more in my upcoming book, Hug of War. (Publishing in July 2024.) In fact, I devote an entire chapter to constructive conflict in family business. Join my mailing list to receive communications about how to help your family business thrive.

[i] Jean Piaget’s 1936 theory of cognitive development:

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