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posted: 3/31/2012 9:11 AM

Check childhood baggage when dealing with family

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"How old am I anyway?"

While talking to my sister, I found myself struggling with some of the same emotions I felt when I was a kid -- misunderstood, left out, hurt and frustrated.

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I'm the oldest of five, and I never felt like I really fit in. I was the quiet, shy, "brainy" older brother who was always off studying, reading or working. My younger siblings always seemed closer and more connected.

I've changed a lot since my childhood, and so have my sisters and brother. As adults, we talk on the phone, visit when we can, and are friends to each other -- listening, caring, supporting and helping out.

But in the midst of a discussion about a difficult family issue, I started feeling like I was still that kid who didn't fit in. It was as if none of the growing up we'd all done, as individuals and as a family, ever happened.

Fortunately, though, it had. Once I reminded myself of that, my leftover childhood emotions faded and we were able to work things out like the friends we had become.

Most of us have just come through a time filled with Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas gift exchanges, New Year's parties and various other family get-togethers.

I'll bet many of us found ourselves feeling like kids again -- relating to our parents, siblings and other family members as if we'd never really grown up. We compete for dad's attention just like we used to when our younger sister was born. We resent the extra gift mom gave our brother; we were sure he was her favorite.

We are angry that we're the ones doing the dishes again; wasn't that always our job? We're frustrated by our older sister's bossiness but still do what she says -- she has always been in charge.

We'd like to be included in the group that is sitting around the dining room table but stay in the other room because we never felt our cousins wanted us to play with them.

Rather than responding to these situations as rational adults, we find ourselves caught up in childlike emotions. Instead of walking over to Dad and giving him some attention, admiring our brother's new shirt, asking for help with the dishes, thanking our sister for her advice and telling her that we can handle it, or just sitting down with our cousins and joining in the conversation, we feel and act like the kids we used to be rather than the adults we are.

It's even a bit funny if you think about it. In the rest of our relationships, we probably face all sorts of similar situations and handle them well enough. But put us with family, and it is like our entire repertoire of adult social skills fly out the window.

I think there are three things to keep in mind about all this. First, remember that all families carry around such childhood-based emotional baggage to some extent. The more we are aware of this, the less likely we are to act out such emotions in our adult relating.

Second, we want to at least treat our family members as respectfully and considerately as we do anyone else. All too often, we treat the people we barely know a whole lot better than the people with whom we've spent our lives. If we keep this in mind, it can help us keep some of our childish emotions in check.

Finally, our emotional struggles within our families actually may give us clues to emotional struggles in other relational arenas. Perhaps the distracted boss who never looks up from his desk reminds us a bit too much of the father who never looked up from his newspaper. Maybe the lunchroom crowd we hesitate to join brings back memories of the cousins we were afraid to play with.

I guess we never really outgrow our families. Fortunately, individuals and families do grow up. Keep that in mind the next time your clan gathers, and when you act like a bunch of kids do it for fun -- not out of frustration.

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