Holidays are a time of family, friends, and passing on traditions to children.
The songs, the sparkly celebration lights, families coming together – everything says that this is the most wonderful time of the year.
And most of the time, it is.
Although at other times it can be extremely stressful!
If you have young children, I’m sure you know what I mean: one minute everyone is getting along fine and the next minute your preschooler has refused to thank Grandma for a gift and there are meltdowns – on both sides! Truth be told, the most wonderful time of the year can also be the most stressful when we’re rushing from one place to the next while also trying to spend ‘quality time’ with family.
We want to enjoy the holidays – and with a bit of advanced preparation we might actually be able to do this, rather than just surviving them.
So what can we do to bring more ease to our holidays?
- Carefully consider where you will stay
Be intentional and set boundaries around you and your child’s need for space and privacy. If your family house is not spacious enough or quiet enough, then you may need to ask yourself if it’s a better idea to simply book a room or a house nearby your family’s home and scheduling time for visits with them.
As much as you love your parents, chances are that you having access to your own space to retreat to can be the difference between a successful trip and one that leaves you tearing your hair out, giving you the peace of mind to really enjoy the time you do spend with family.
Of course there are financial considerations; staying with family may save some money. But if you end up more stressed and tired then having a place to escape to at the end of the day could save your sanity especially if your relationship with your family is less than perfect.
- Plan in advance about where to set boundaries around family members
Sensitive topics: yup! They’ll happen, so let’s prepare for them.
Wouldn’t parenting be so much easier if everyone from your family would know what to say and how to interact with your child?
But what we can do in our less-than-ideal world is to think and plan in advance about how to handle sensitive situations and where to set boundaries around family members’ interactions with your child.
What will happen if Uncle Rob makes racist comments has he has in years past, and now your child is old enough to understand? How will you explain that Aunt Maria won’t be there this year because Grandma disapproves of her girlfriend? What will you do if Grandpa offers your child a soda with every meal because he drinks one with every meal?
How do you feel as you imagine these scenarios?
Probably not great, right?
Out of control?
Ideally we would have conversations with our family members in advance of our visit and consider any boundaries that we will not allow to have crossed. We can get crystal clear inside our own mind what we are and aren’t willing to tolerate, which makes it easier to take action when the situation arises.
When we talk with family members about our concerns, approaching the conversation from a place of openness and curiosity rather than a desire to “make them see things our way” is more likely to be productive and less likely to raise hackles. No one wants to feel put in the corner and criticized, even if you know that drinking a soda with every meal isn’t a healthy habit. So we might start:
“Can you tell me more about…?”
“What would happen if…?
“[Child’s name] has been having a hard time lately when…”
These are some great conversation openers because they create a space of trust and sincerity around the subject without making anyone feel judged, criticized or rejected. The idea is to make sure that the focus is kept on the problem itself, not on the people involved in the conversation which invites both parties to work on potential solutions rather than jumping to protect themselves from attack.
We also don’t have to have deep and meaningful conversations with every member of our family. If other family members have made life choices that we don’t agree with it’s OK to realize that different people serve different functions in our lives, and not every family relationship needs to be an intimate one.
- Accept that your family members will have different relationships with your child than you do.
It’s OK if Grandma tells your child they are beautiful or strong, or doles out candy as rewards. Given that old habits die hard, there can be the case where they can’t handle your child’s meltdowns as you would prefer and may hear some of the old “Big boys don’t cry”, “Good little girls eat their dinner before they get dessert” and “Think of the poor children in (Wherever) and eat your food.”
You are the main guide in your child’s life and a few days of hearing these messages isn’t the end of the world. Overall the benefits of a good relationship with Grandma probably outweigh hearing the ideas that don’t jibe with your approach – as long as the boundaries you defined earlier aren’t crossed.
Where family members struggle in interactions with your child, you can comfort your child while explaining “It’s OK for anyone to cry if they feel like it, even big boys,” or “[Child’s name] will finish dinner later, if they’d like to.” You can briefly explain to your relative that children learn about their emotions by experiencing them, and that you aim to raise a child who has a healthy relationship with food even if that means they don’t clean their plate.
Many grandparents do love to treat their grandkids with cookies, candy and other sweet confections just as much as kids love to receive them. It may help letting them know that there are other ways in which they can show their love without necessarily handing out candies all the time. You can say something like: “There will be candies later as well, let’s play a game for now with Grandpa”.
- Be ready to protect your child when necessary
Your child might need you to hold them when entering a crowded room and explain to the others that they will say ‘Hi’ when they’re ready, or offer Great Aunt Hilda a high five instead of a hug and kiss before leaving.
Some family members may insist or simply lean to hug or kiss your child – especially if it’s a cultural norm in your country. Depending on what you’ve decided about whether this is a non-negotiable boundary for you, you can step up and reinforce your child’s boundaries and let them know that “right now you can give [Child] a high five, and maybe they will be ready for a kiss/hug later.”
You might hear: “But Grandma needs a hug for the holidays!” Maybe she does, but if you have decided that this is a non-negotiable boundary, then you can feel confident that not allowing Grandma’s needs take priority over the needs of your child is in line with your values, which makes it easier to stand your ground. If an adult says he/she “needs” a hug, then this also magnifies the reasons for your child to have permission to keep their boundaries. When children don’t feel they can say who can touch their body, they may be at greater risk for abuse.
By being there when your child needs you, as a protector of its boundaries and limits, you are setting them up for self-acceptance. And even more importantly, you are showing them that they can speak their truth and still be loved and accepted.
- Try to keep the routines if possible (e.g. bath, books, bed) – but accept that disruptions to routines are part of what makes the holidays fun
While routines help you keep your child’s schedule organized, gets enough rest, and avoids overstimulation, during the holidays it can be very difficult to have the same schedule in place. You know your child’s needs best, and you can use this knowledge to set up environments that work for your child. If your child simply cannot function without bedtime at 7pm and a daily two-hour nap, then you’ll know that protecting these is a top priority. Be proactive by communicating your scheduling needs by saying something like, “We are so excited to visit and spend time together! I know we have a lot of activities scheduled, so I just want to make sure that my child is able to nap daily from 12-2pm so you and [Child] can have lots of fun together!”
Other children are much more flexible and will be fine with a short car nap or an occasional late night and in these cases you can simply try to preserve as much as possible of the normal routine (bath, books, bed) at the different time to help your child settle.
Whatever your child’s needs, we do need to accept that holidays come with some scheduling disruptions – visits to family members’ houses; outings to the cinema or theater; meals that stretch late into the night. I vividly recall the time when I was first allowed to stay up past midnight – aged around six – it was a highlight of that family vacation for both my sister and me, and is part of the magic of childhood.
- Demonstrate compassion for your child – and yourself
It can be super-stressful to be around our families at the best of times, and during the holidays the pressure is on to try to be a big, happy family that gets along.
Keep this in mind and hang in there. Be gentle with yourself and your child during holidays.
Remember that your child depends on you not only to regulate their environment but also to help them regulate their moods. The early periods are an extremely sensitive time when children absorb all the stimulation and energy in their environments. Holidays are actually stressful for children – even at the same time as they are enjoying all the attention, candy, and gifts. All of the sights and sounds and crowds during the holidays can be a lot for kids to digest. You might hear:
“Mommy, I want to go home.”
“I don’t like grandpa.”
“I don’t want to stay here anymore.”
These are some early signs that things may be too much for your little one, if your child has enough vocabulary to express this. If not – or if they’re already so flooded they can’t talk with you, flailing on the floor might be the first warning you get.
In these moments, try to be flexible – if your child is over stimulated they might cry and not be able to use words to describe their feelings, seem tired or upset, throw themselves on the floor in tears or anger, refuse to do a particular activity…you know how it goes. Even if there are plans or gathering you need to attend to, if things are not working for your child, it’s okay to give it up. You might say:
“I seems like you’re having a hard time right now. Should we go to a quiet room?”
“I think you’re trying to tell me you need a break. Shall we step away from this for a bit and go for a walk outside?”
“It looks like you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed. Would a hug help?”
Most of the time, making it clear that your child is allowed to express their emotions makes them feel connected and safe again.
Your relatives might expect that if your approach to parenting is ‘working,’ then your empathy for your child will result in an end to the tantrum. But if we think about a time when someone has deeply empathized with us, we might recall that experiencing that empathy can actually open the floodgates so we express more emotion, not less. This doesn’t mean that respectful parenting ‘doesn’t work’ – in fact, it means the complete opposite.
And while we’re on the topic of compassion, don’t forget to save some for yourself. You might not be a perfect parent in stressful moments either – you might snap at your child in a way that you wouldn’t do at home because you’re tired or hungry or overwhelmed. Acknowledge that you are doing the best you can under the circumstances, forgive yourself for any mistakes you make, and try again tomorrow.
Holidays are a time of celebration and fun activities. There are so many wonderful opportunities during holidays when we can connect with other family members and pass on family traditions to our children. Not everything will go perfectly all the time, and if we can let go of the expectation that this will happen, we’ll have an easier time.
If we can find a good balance of preparing ourselves – and our family members – for successful interactions, along with a willingness to go with the flow while we’re there, we can set both us and our child up for success this holiday season.