It’s that time of year again! My parent clients who gather with extended family during the winter holidays are starting to stress out. Folks are either traveling to holiday gatherings or they’re planning and hosting them.
While there are some parents who are fondly looking forward to connecting with family members, others dread the less positive aspects of meeting up with far-flung family.
How will your kids manage the different rules in other adults’ homes? What will you do about kiddie cousin conflict, when your sister and brother-in-law tend to use harsh shaming and punishments to “solve” squabbles? How will you deal with the side-eye you get from your own parents when you choose respectful discipline approaches instead? Do you enforce your children’s normal routines from home when the other kids and adults have very different daily rhythms? What if your child isn’t great with transition and change? What if you aren’t great with transitions and change?
The rigmarole of holiday logistics can lead to challenging behavior from both you and your children.
Here are seven ways to reduce family anxiety during the winter holidays:
1. Prepare for family differences in habits and routines
If you’ll be staying with family, talk with the other adults involved beforehand about general wake times, bedtimes, and eating times. As you begin one task or activity, remind your child of what’s coming up next. “After this card game, we’ll read some books, and then it will be time to help Auntie Jane with dinner.”
Does your child have certain sensory sensitivities and needs? Let your extended family know about these ahead of time and how you plan to handle them. The fewer surprises for everyone, the better.
2. Discuss everyone’s expectations beforehand
Don’t assume that just because you’re family that you’re all on the same page about what day-to-day living looks like. Make sure everyone communicates their hard limits and boundaries before your gathering. Otherwise, you might be unpleasantly surprised to find out that your sibling took for granted that you were buying all of the groceries and doing all of the cooking and cleaning at the vacation rental.
How much togetherness/solitary time does everyone need and how can that be accommodated? How will you handle kid conflicts? If you’re hosting at your place, do your kids need to put away any special toys that they’d prefer no other children play with?
3. Set yourself and your kids up for success
Before embarking on your family’s traditional afternoon nature hike, make sure everyone in your nuclear family has had their biological needs taken care of. A well-fed, well-slept, well-connected kiddo is going to have a much easier time tolerating their baby cousin’s poking and the adults-only conversations than they would otherwise. And you’re more likely to take everything less personally when your own cup is full.
4. Prevention is worth a pound of cure
When the kids are having trouble controlling their bodies around each other, things can get tense. The parents of the “aggressing” child can feel shamed, blamed, and helpless and the parents of the “victimized” child can feel defensive and overprotective.
Talk to kids before your gathering about what they can do if they feel like hitting or pushing and what their options are if someone hits or pushes them. Remember that children are still learning to be appropriate in social situations and can need a lot of help—some even more than others.
If your child struggles with hitting, make sure you stay close enough to them at all times to block hits or otherwise intervene before things escalate. Give your child lots of breaks from the social situation to return to calm. If your child is being hurt by other kids and other parents aren’t taking the initiative to prevent physical conflict, you might have to do the preventing yourself. And know your child’s limits. If they were fine for the last two hours, and now have begun shoving and grabbing, it’s likely that they are overstimulated and may need to leave the situation altogether. Don’t ignore those signals!
5. Have an “overstimulation” plan
Is Grandpa going to need to watch (and shout along with) loud sports on TV that will put your mostly screen-free family’s nerves on edge? Plan to go for a walk, run an errand, or have a quiet activity you and your kids can do together during that time. Collaborate with your kids ahead of time to plan for what you’ll all do individually or together when one of you needs some “calm down” time.
Perhaps you’re overwhelmed by sensory things like noise or smells or maybe it’s just that family member doing that thing they always do and you just need some space. Have each family member identify and/or pack a comfort item (a toy, a stuffed animal, a journal, a book, a hug, an activity like running, knitting, or listening to a favorite song, etc) that allows them to re-regulate.
6. Hold your limits but don’t hold your breath!
Some parents who aspire to or currently practice respectful parenting have told me that they were raised by adults who were punitive, controlling, or uncomfortable with children’s expression of big emotions in ways they’re trying not to repeat with their own children.
That sounds easy enough until your Aunt Crankypants tries to “discipline” your very young child out of their emotions or behaviors by yelling at, belittling, or shaming them. It can be very triggering when other adults’ big emotions come out in ways that you worry are harmful to your child, and it might be hard not to react in the very ways you want to leave behind.
In these moments, remember to pause and take a breath in and a deliberately slow exhale out before responding. It gives you time to think about what you want to model about relational conflict to your Auntie and to your child who might be watching. Say something that helps everyone feel acknowledged, and shows that you’ve got a handle on the parenting situation yourself. To the aunt, you could say, “Aunt Crankypants, are you okay? I’m sorry she hit you.” To your child, you might say, “You were so upset about the argument with your cousin and you hit Aunt Crankypants. It’s hard being away from home for so long, I know. Let’s go somewhere quiet and take a break.”
7. Radical acceptance
This could be your most important tool for getting through what can, for some parents, be a time fraught with too-late bedtimes, too many sweets, or that same frustrating conversation you’re having with your in-laws for the zillionth time.
Remind yourself of your four choices for managing your agitation: You can change how you’re thinking about the situation, try to change the situation, or simply accept that what’s happening is indeed happening. The fourth option you have is that you can choose to stay miserable.
But instead of turning ordinary pain that can come with the stress of holidays with extended family into suffering by ruminating on your frustrations, try to sit with what is. Maybe it’s not the end of the world if your child stays up too late or eats loads of less-healthy foods. These are a handful of hours or days—a blip in their normally structured lives. Internally validate your own feelings—it makes sense that you’re having moments of overwhelm and annoyance! Family time isn’t always easy. And at the same time, try to verbally validate the perspectives of others—especially those you disagree with—and you may diffuse conflict before it even begins!
For some parents, spending time with extended family during the holidays is a delight and they look forward to it for months. For others, the thought of having to white-knuckle it through other adults’ way-more-lax-than-you screen time rules or being exhausted by having to shadow your overstimulated child to make sure she doesn’t clobber someone has you feeling a lot of dread.
Let’s not even mention the icing on the holiday cake of unsolicited opinions offered up about you being “too soft” with your children!
Set your family up for success by proactively discussing with your extended family everyone’s expectations, contributions, and potential sensitivities and troubleshoot ahead of time. Have a plan for how you’ll handle kids not getting along with one another or becoming physically aggressive and be prepared to shadow a struggling child. Make sure everyone in your family knows what their “calm-down” strategy will be and how they can ask for support if they need to. Use intentional breathing to help you set calm, confident boundaries with others when you need to. And finally, try to change what you can, let go of what you can’t, and radically accept the rest.
The goal of holidays with extended family is a felt experience of connection, and it just so happens that reminding yourself to lead with connection in your interactions is the most reliable way of meeting that goal.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.