Holidays sprinkle much needed levity into our lives, bringing friends and families together in meaningful ways. But as much fun as special occasions can be, family gatherings can also disrupt familiar routines. Travel, sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings, meeting lots of new faces might be exciting for tweens or teens but confusing for young children, making even the easy going child more temperamental.
Plan ahead to make holidays jolly
According to The Urban Child Institute’s 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County, children are born with a built-in capacity to be social and engage with others. Meeting new people while feeling safe and protected is a key aspect of development in the early years of life.
“Even though [holidays] might cause stress for children, parents can insulate them from the stress by thinking forward,” says Ephie Johnson, president and CEO of Neighborhood Christian Centers, Inc. It’s the job of caregivers to help kids “go with the flow” when special events disrupt the daily structure.
How you respond to your child’s cues is important to his cognitive and emotional development. Stressed-out children send us signals, via meltdowns or moodiness, but it’s up to us to anticipate their reactions and plan for ways to diffuse it.
“Loving acts from parents and care-givers are noticed,” says Johnson. “With careful planning, kids can feel loved, protected, and appreciated no matter the circumstance. This creates an environment of care anywhere you happen to be.”
What gives children a sense of safety and love isn’t tied to a physical place. It’s consistent caregiving, enhanced by bringing along familiar objects from home when you travel. “Pack snacks they like, music they know, clothes they like to wear. Help maintain the family vocabulary on the road,” says Johnson.
By car or plane, make travel fun
Fun can be built into your travel time. Rather than a 10-hour exercise in patience, a drive or flight to another city can be an adventure. “My wife Angie and I try to provide crafts or organized activities for the girls,” say Kevin Conway, the father of three girls under 5. Counting cows, taking photos, spotting license plates, collecting rest-area brochures or listening to music or books on CDs are all great ways to turn travel time into fun with your family. Put together a game bag for each child or allow them to bring one or two favorite toys. Pick up a new CD or DVD to play. Make sure to build in stops every few hours, so kids can get fresh air, snacks, and exercise.
When family comes to visit
If you are hosting relatives who will be camping out in your rumpus rooms, kids can become just as discombobulated as they do traveling across time zones. Young children respond well to routine, and accommodating house guests means just the opposite. With them come different eating habits and unfamiliar rules.
“Kids will shoot questions at you like crazy,” says Johnson. “Answer them. The child’s perspective is different from yours. You must respond with validation of their questions and concerns.” New people in your home offer a great opportunity to demonstrate lessons in diversity. When guests arrive, maintain some routines, but also take advantage of the visit to show your children how to fit themselves into the bigger picture of family membership.
“It can also be challenging being around family who may not have the same parenting style,” says Conway. “We try our best to prepare our kids before we leave that just because so-and-so’s mommy allows them to do this doesn’t mean you are allowed. Mommy and Daddy’s rules still apply away from home.” But holidays are special occasions and should feel celebratory, a vital part of the human experience. “We try to be lax about things like diet when we are with family and allow the girls to join in the sweets overload every once in a while.”
Let them know they’re loved
Because the human brain does 80 percent of its growing in the first three years of life, the experience young children have during their first few holiday cycles can have an impact. Your role as parent or caregiver is to guide your child through these periodic breaks in normalcy in ways that show them they are loved, important, and interesting to others.
“Help your children remain children,” says Johnson. “But also always hold in your heart the knowledge that it’s up to you to put in them the things they need to go out and succeed. ‘What I have, I put in you.’” And what each of our families have, we put into each subsequent generation.