Why You Act Like a Kid When You Go Home for Thanksgiving

It’s only natural for adults to slip back into their childhood personas.

— -- Even though Jimmy Buff is now 50-something years old and a successful radio host in upstate New York, he's expecting a lot of ribbing from his siblings and dad over Thanksgiving dinner.

His family still treats him like the flamboyant attention seeker he was as a boy, he said.

"To them," he added, "I’m still the kid playing loud rock and roll in my room and growing my hair long when everyone else was going off to college."

It’s only natural for adults to slip back into their childhood personas when they get together with family, said Dr. Joe Shrand, a psychiatrist and medical director of the CASTLE treatment center in Brockton, Massachusetts.

"You develop patterns of behavior within the family hierarchy that are a way of jockeying for attention without directly competing in the same way," he said. "These patterns don’t just go away when you grow up and move away from home."

Whether you're a successful radio host, the CEO of a large company or a famous actor, Shrand said, that means you might be traveling back in time as you return home for Thanksgiving. Your first relationships are with your family and, presumably, you had at least 16 years to practice within the family dynamic before leaving home, he said.

Surrounded by childhood family and friends, you might revert to your childhood identity as the funny one, the instigator or the victim because the behavior is familiar and ingrained.

Likewise, family members tend to view you the same way they have all your life, even if you've changed, Shrand said.

Jeff Brown, a Harvard psychologist, said he considers playing the part of your childhood self at family get-togethers a form of regression.

"We go back to a time in life when we were forming our first memories," he said.

Lapsing back into behaviors based on good memories and temporarily assuming your place in the family pyramid isn't necessarily a bad thing, Brown said. As long as you enjoy the inside jokes and reliving past antics only your siblings, parents and cousins can dredge up, there’s no harm. But if your role is based on unhappy recollections and negative stereotypes, it can be damaging.

"If it’s embarrassing to be treated a certain way, you have to remind yourself that you can’t control others but you can control how you react," he said.

Brown advised not rising to the bait if you’re not fond of the way relatives treat you or how you tend to act when you're around them. If the dynamic is unpleasant or even unhealthy, consider skipping family gatherings altogether.

But, Shrand said, whenever possible, it's best to see the humor in your situation.

"Don't take it too seriously," he said. "It's really funny when an older sibling talks over you at the dinner table because he knows more than you do -- or thinks he does."

That's how Buff has chosen to deal with it. Now, when his father shows him job listings for junior executive positions and managers of big box stores and suggests he consider a "real career," he just chuckles.

"I should thank him, actually," Buff said. "When it was younger, it used to fuel my fires."