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BY: Dr. Robin Alter 

The key to managing the holidays so that it is enjoyable for everyone is managing expectations.  When expectations are too high you can be let down, become stressed, even be disappointed and children rarely handle disappointments well.  Here are some tips to make this holiday season a happy one for you and your family.

1. Children and adults like ritual. The holidays are a great time to develop family rituals, such as when you open the gifts, how to welcome Santa, lighting candles on the menorah, or even doing something charitable for those less fortunate.  This is a good time to establish and teach the values you cherish in your family and do it concretely so that children can see and experience it in action.  Children want to feel pride in their family and their family’s traditions. This establishes their sense of security, identity and sense of belonging and helps to build resilience.  A 50 year review of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology found that “family routines and rituals are alive and well and are associated with marital satisfaction, adolescents’ sense of personal identity, children’s health, academic achievement and stronger family relationships.”  They report that rituals are actions that are symbolic, providing the family and the children with a sense of who we are that can create a sense of identity that lasts for generations. 

2.  Young children thrive on routine. The holidays come with a change in and often a lapse in routine.  This is often a welcome respite from the hectic pace we all keep during the year, but there are reasons why keeping an element of routine into the unstructured days of the holidays is beneficial for you and your family.  Routines provide a sense of safety and belonging for children.  It also gives them the opportunity to form healthy habits so you might want to introduce some element of routine during the holidays Simple things like having quiet play in the morning and then in the afternoon an outing or you might even want to have a calendar so kids can see the structure for the week and can anticipate and plan for what’s coming up.  Make it visual and concrete for them.

3. Children learn from their parents. Children watch what their parents do more than they listen to what they say.  Words are often too complex and confusing and actions speak louder than words.  Most human behaviour is learned through modelling especially with children and the holidays are a great time to model and teach children how to deal with disappointments.  As you problem solve a situation, speak out loud so that you are sharing your process with your child.  It might go something like this– “Oh dear I forgot to buy a key ingredient for the cake.  I don’t know if I have enough time to go back to the store.  I’m going to sit down, take a deep breath and think about what I can do here.  Let’s see if there’s a substitute or perhaps I can borrow it from our neighbour.  I want it to come out really good for the holidays, so I’ll have to take some time to think this through.  I’m going to try not to get too upset about it.  I have a lot of things to think about so it’s not unusual that I would forget one or two things.” 

4.  Children and adults may show their stress differently.  The holidays are a perfect time to help your child identify and manage their stress.  Adults typically know when they are stressed and will verbalize it to others around them. Children rarely do this because they don’t know that stress is what they are feeling, they just know they feel upset or bad.  When children are stressed they typically cry, yell, sometimes withdraw into themselves, or may act angry and hit a sibling.   They have stomach aches and headaches which can be directly related to the stress hormones that are released in the body when one is stressed. They are also prone to temper tantrums and meltdowns which operate as shut off valves. Children communicate with behaviour much more often than they communicate directly with words.  That part of the brain that reflects and analyzes feelings and then puts it into words simply has not developed yet, so don’t expect that kind of behaviour from a young child or even adolescent.   As a parent you can do this job for your child, let them know that you understand their behaviour and where it’s coming from.  If you’re not sure, simply guess and your child will let you know if you’re on target. Feelings usually settle down when they’ve been verbally acknowledged.   When you see that your child is stressed, try not to react to their negative behaviour with your own negative reactions.  This only adds fuel to the fire and doesn’t lead to a positive resolution.  If this happens, it may be because you’re feeling stressed and if that’s true then take care of your own stress first.  But if you’re in control of yourself, then find a way to help your child “destress” or chill out– quiet time, listen to music, find something to laugh about, read a book together, have some milk and Christmas cookies, whatever brings your emotional temperature back to neutral.