At the end of each holiday season, do you look upon your loved ones, cherish their existence, but vow never to host another holiday dinner? Do you find yourself one year later, loading up on puffed pastry and ordering another oversized bird?
Times are changing and families are more complex than ever. Same-sex marriage, family members living far away, dual parents working, divorce, remarriage and mixed ethnic and religious differences all add to the stress children and families face today. These suggestions, however, will help you through the weeks of festivities and will make it easier for you to get the children back on track when the holidays are over.
STEP ONE Plan ahead
Several weeks before the event, sit down and make a list of the things you are worried about. Are you concerned that older children will not want to participate and will prefer to disappear with their friends? Worried about how to handle issues of sadness and loss with regard to relatives who are no longer with you? Nervous about the tenuous relationships you may have with family members that might spill over along with your homemade soup?
If you can identify the sensitive issues before the momentous occasion, you can prevent much of the chaos and anxiety for yourself and your family. Be sure to trust your instincts.
STEP TWO Prepare yourself and your children
Children ages 2-5
Young children often have trouble with changes in their daily schedule. They rely upon routine to structure their developing selves. Try to keep things such as bedtime, meal times, and the usual rules the same. When you need to make a change in the schedule, give children an explanation along with an accommodated plan, such as a nap, or a healthy snack. If they are in the middle of toilet training or some other developmental task, stick with it, but allow for slips stemming from the excitement and change.
Children want to be seen as big and capable. Give them specific tasks and responsibilities. For example, let the children make place setting cards or a welcome sign for guests. Suggest they find pictures of families in magazines and have them make a collage, or two – or 20! Let the children help cook or set some part of the table. Help your children feel they are an important part of the celebration.
Children ages 6-9
Children this age want to be a part of things, so involve them by giving them jobs to do. Make the children holiday photographers with a disposable camera or a Polaroid. Have the children create a large family tree to be hung in the living room for the event. If you have guests from out of town, or out of the country, have the children learn a little about where they are from. Let the children help plan the menu, or, if you can handle it, allow them to cook one of the dishes or desserts.
Remember to discuss with your children what you expect from them during the holidays. Are they required to wear something specific? Are they allowed to watch television? Do the children need to wait until everyone is done eating before they are excused from the table? Let your children be a part of the discussion. Accommodating some of the children’s needs will make them feel “bigger” and more connected to the plan.
Children ages 10 and up
Adolescents and teenagers strive for independence while at the same time want to remain connected with the family. Adolescents appear to want to be with their friends by day and to stay on their computers all night.
However, there is also an intense unexpressed desire to spend time with the family and take part in holiday traditions. There is room for negotiation and compromise when it comes to adolescents and teens. First, decide bottom lines. When do teenagers need to be physically present even if they balk? Are they allowed to invite a friend? Discuss the rules and regulations before the holiday. Be realistic and take adolescent needs into consideration. Try to engage them in the holidays and do not assume their complaints reflect a lack of interest, but rather a developmental conflict between growing up and staying childlike.
Develop family activities around the interests of your older children. For example, if your teens are Internet enthusiasts, assign them the role of teaching Grandpa about the computer, showing him Facebook or Pinterest for the over-65 crowd. Teens also love television and movies. Create your own family film festival in which different family members choose movies to watch. Think about a yearly showing of one special film. Have teenagers record/document the gathering. Be sure to play it later while everyone is still together and save it for holidays in the future.
Do not expect teens to verbalize or display enthusiasm about family togetherness. It may take years…and grandchildren, for both you and the children to recognize the importance and impact of the event.
STEP THREE Enjoy!
Do not agonize over the many things that can, and will, go wrong. Take some pressure off yourself and find shortcuts. Cook and obsess less, cater and assign dishes more. Consider taking the event to a restaurant. Create new traditions that reflect the changing times. Let go of the “perfect holiday” image and spend more time with your family. Take care of yourself, plan ahead, and you will be better prepared to handle all that arises for your children, your relatives, and your guests.