This article originally appeared in the Parents section of cbc.ca on December 14, 2017
The key to organizing the holidays so that they’re enjoyable for everyone? Managing expectations.
When expectations are too high you can be let down, become stressed, even be disappointed — and children rarely handle disappointments well. Make this holiday season a happy one for you and your family with these four tips.
The holidays are a great time to develop family rituals like when you open gifts, how to welcome Santa, lighting candles on the menorah, or even doing something charitable for those less fortunate. Use this time to establish and teach the values you cherish in your family, and do so concretely so children can see and experience it in action. Children not only want to feel pride in their family and their family’s traditions, but rituals help form their sense of security, identity and belonging.
In fact, a 50-year review of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology found that rituals are also associated with “marital satisfaction, … children’s health, academic achievement and stronger family relationships.”
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. Sit down, breathe. Maybe I can borrow it from our neighbour? 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.”
The holidays are a perfect time to help your child with stress, just keep in mind that children and adults may show their stress differently. Adults typically know when they’re stressed and will verbalize it to others. Children just know they feel upset or bad and rarely do this because they don’t know that stress is what they’re feeling. When children are stressed, they typically cry and yell, but sometimes they will withdraw into themselves or 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. The part of the brain that reflects and analyzes feelings and then puts them 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 by letting 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 de-stress or chill out — quiet time, listening to music, finding something to laugh about, reading a book together, having some milk and Christmas cookies are all good ways to bring your emotional temperature back to neutral.
The holidays often come with a lapse or change in routine. This may be a welcome respite from the hectic pace we all keep during the year, but there are reasons why keeping an element of routine during the holidays is beneficial for you and your family. Routines provide a sense of safety and belonging for children, and they give them the opportunity to form healthy habits.
Try a simple routine like having quiet play in the morning with an outing in the afternoon, or create a calendar with your kids so they can see the structure for the week and can anticipate and plan for what’s coming up. Make it visual and concrete for them.