Holidays! Equal amounts of family, joy and tradition mixed with stress, anxiety and obligation. While we look forward to spending time with family and friends or participating in long-held family traditions, it can mean traveling (with traffic or long air-plane rides), a change of routine (closed school and attending special events), and being in new groups of people with varying expectations (Aunt Sally’s house might have very different rules then your house!). Findings from a recent poll on holiday stress conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that eight out of ten Americans anticipated stress during the holiday season.
As a parent, what can you do to avoid some of the tension, exhaustion and stress for yourself and your little ones that so often are a part of holiday planning? Instead, how can you foster the joy and togetherness we would all like to share with our children?
Know what to expect
Clarity and predictability help children to feel competent. While your child knows the expectations and rules at school or at home, the excitement of a relative’s home or the novelty of a religious ceremony might be much harder for your child to navigate. Have clear, concise conversations with her about what she can expect at the new experience “When in church, we will sing beautiful songs, we will listen to people speak and we will watch as they light the candles.” or “When we visit Aunt Sally you will notice that she collects music boxes. They are her special collection and are only for grown-ups to touch.” (If you are really close to Aunt Sally you could ask her to move those music boxes to a higher shelf!!) Children know they behave differently in synagogue than they do at a playground. If they know the rules and expectations ahead of time, they will be more successful at regulating their own behavior. It is also important that they know certain familiar expectations will be met. It can be reassuring to hear you say “of course, I’ll read to you before bedtime at Grandma’s house.” Since many things are inconsistent around the holidays, children need to know that you will not be one of those things that is transformed by the holiday.
Many holiday traditions involve much planning and preparation. When possible, create a schedule that includes appropriate tasks for your children. For many, memories of helping to cook the meal are the warmest holiday memories of all! If you find yourself returning to your own warm childhood memories, share them with your child. Hearing stories about your own childhood provides a strong connection from you to your child. Share your stories while working together to bake that sweet potato pie—the pie your family has shared at holidays for generations—and you are connecting your child to the past all the while building new family traditions. It is worth noting that your child’s contributions will not look like yours. You are giving your child the best gift of all—respect for his work—if you let the icing look less than perfect, can tolerate a few extra sprinkles on the cookies or appreciate the messy bow on the crinkled wrapping paper. Let his contribution stand and show him that you truly value his effort.
There is usually an increased opportunity for socializing around the holidays. For some children, this is a welcomed treat and they enjoy being the star of the show at Grandma’s. Most however, prefer to get to know or reacquaint themselves with others on their own time. A good trick for the slow to warm up child is to be early to big, group parties. Let your child be one of the first ones in attendance instead of showing up late and walking into a bustling, busy, noisy room. Try not to insist your child be cordial or overtly friendly when it is clear they are feeling shy or uncertain. Avoid pressuring your child to greet everyone with a hearty “Hello!” or give mandatory hugs and kisses to all the relatives. With less pressure to act poised (and maybe even a simple acknowledgment of “Sometimes it is overwhelming to be around so many people!”), a young child will achieve genuine social comfort sooner. The best way to teach your child to be comfortable in social settings or exhibit social conventions is to be a living model yourself. Your interest in the people around you and your sense of belonging and connectedness will influence the readiness with which your child will respond to others.
Manage your expectations
While it might be romantic to image the family Hallmark moments found in the holiday season, it is important to manage your expectations for young children. While it would be wonderful if the whole family could enjoy a holiday meal without outburst or incident, inevitably, there will be a new vegetable dish someone refuses to try or a tugging match over a toy with a cousin! Let go of the image of what a family holiday ‘should’ look like and enjoy the holiday that is! Plan lots of opportunity for downtime. Children need time to decompress and cannot go, go, go! Family parties, holiday performances, presents, and people…all can be overstimulating and overwhelming to a young child.
We try to achieve a balance between recognizing these important days in the lives of our children’s families and adhering to a curriculum that pulls its greatest inspiration from the children, not the calendar. We want our classrooms to be driven by children’s interests, questions and inquiries; not a prescribed, given set of holidays, dates or artifacts which might or might not be relevant to the individual daily lives of our kids.
With that said, we do recognize the significance of holiday celebrations and traditions in the context of families. Often children are excited about an upcoming holiday and want to share their experience in the class. We might use stories, songs or cooking projects as a way to recognize and reflect children’s experiences. What we want to avoid is manufactured decorations, commercialism, stressful or fearful experiences and any activity that sends the message, “this is the way to celebrate [insert any holiday name here].” Our discussions about holidays are personal and centered on what the children actually do within their family to celebrate.
In connecting celebrations with families and highlighting how celebrations manifest themselves in the context of a family, children will come to understand that everyone’s celebrations and traditions—including their own—are culturally significant and meaningful. Because so much of our approach is a result of the individual teacher and children collaborating together, different teachers and different age groups will express their thoughts and their enthusiasms in unique ways. The primary goals in our handling of holidays are to honestly reflect the diverse experiences of the children in the group and to give an authentic glimpse of the traditions, culture, and values of our families in an accessible, developmentally appropriate and concrete way.
As Thanksgiving has recently passed, and the official holiday season begins, remember that kids pick up on your stress and tension. They will more likely be anxious if you are anxious. Don’t feel like you have to cram in every party and every event and every happy, holiday moment! Prioritize and don’t be afraid to say “No” if you are feeling stretched too thin. Keep your sense of humor, enjoy your kids (and extended family!) for who they are.
Happiest of Happy Everything to you and yours from your family at Greenhouse,
Renee and the staff and faculty of Greenhouse