Saving kids from holiday hoopla

December 21, 2009
It’s not rocket science, but many parents – me included – seem to find it difficult to keep our children on an even keel during the holiday season.
We think it’s all good: the parties, the Santa pictures, the relatives, the gifts. What kid wouldn’t love it?
Well, if my informal survey of my friends is any indication, there is always a point where junior balks:“No, I will not sit on that guy’s lap!” “No, I will not let Aunt Glenedore kiss me!” “No, I will not play with that toy! I like the box!”
You get the idea.
How on earth does a parent deal with that nonconforming little ingrate when we are giving her everything she could ever dream of?
By not giving her everything, the experts say, and by focusing on ourselves, rather than our children.
Huh? Isn’t it all about the kids?
Isn’t the reason I’m running breakneck home from a long day’s work to shovel a frozen meal into their mouths so that I can hit the road and take advantage of those“Power Hours”of shopping, all for them? Do they think I really want to go into debt, spend my days sweating over the oven making cookies, or try to keep the“from Santa”wrapping paper different from the“from Mommy”gifts?
“No,”says Donna Housman, founder and clinical director of Beginnings Child Development Center in Weston. “Your children don’t want you to do all that.The secret to avoiding meltdowns by the kids is to take good care of ourselves, to keep our schedules as normal as possible, and to stop trying to make everything so perfect.”
That sounds simple, but maybe not so easy. Many parents work hard to provide the best experiences for their children. We seem to be the generation focused on wanting to give our offspring“perfect childhoods.”And the expectations we place on holidays, family outings, visits with relatives and other supposedly fun things are so high that we tend to stress ourselves out. “And kids pick up on that,” Houseman
says.“The holidays can be hectic, there’s so much going on. When parents feel anxious and overwhelmed, our children know it, they read us, and it makes them feel insecure and uncertain.”
Ripe ground for a tantrum.
Houseman says that when children have a lot of internalized stress, they tend to demonstrate it with naughty behavior.
But there is hope, and the tips shared by those in the know are grounded in common sense, simplicity, and a wakeup call to remember what the holidays are truly about.
“This is a time to focus on the meaning of the season,” says Kathy Valenti, Eastham Elementary School’s psychologist and counselor.“If we are looking for warm memories and positive experiences, stay guided by the ‘less-is-more’ principle. We tend to lose balance around the holidays, and it can be really overwhelming for children. All of a sudden they might be staying up later, going to parties where the food is unusual to them, being kissed and hugged by relatives they may not even remember, and expected to respond with glee to every present they
open. It’s tough on them, and we have to be attentive to that, and pick up on their cues to avoid trouble.”
Michelle LaRowe, a Hyannis parenting expert and author of the book“Working Mom’s 411: How to Manage Kids, Career and Home,”agrees that keeping it simple is key.
“The other part is to keep it as normal as possible,”she says.“Skipping nap time is an invitation to a tantrum.”
Below are the top 10 tips from the collective think tank that shared its expertise:
Take care of yourself: They are like little radar screens: Every blip up or down by caretakers is felt and registered and responded to by the little ones.“If I had to say one thing to avoid meltdowns during the holidays,”says Houseman, “it is to teach the parents to not have meltdowns.”And even though we think we disguise it, our children sense when we are worried and tired and sick of it all.
Stay on schedule: Even though parents might feel as if the special occasion warrants later bedtimes, skipped naps and meals on the fly, children often respond negatively to these disruptions. I once read in a magazine that a secret to happy children is to“feed and rest the beasts on time.”
LaRowe suggests working around the kids’ routines, by scheduling family pictures or present exchanges when the kids are well-rested and
wellfed. “First thing in the morning or after a noontime nap is the ideal time to plan those family outings where you really need the kids to put their best foot forward,”she says.
Let the children make some choices: “How many times have we seen a child screaming in terror on the lap of Santa?” asks Houseman.
“And how many parents were there thinking that their kids were going to love it?”The truth is, some children really don’t have the temperament for some of things we think are really fun.
Let them decide whether or not they pose for the picture.
By acknowledging that some situations are just too stimulating for certain children, it will reduce kids acting out.
“We need to learn how to listen to our kids,”Houseman says.
“They will typically communicate their feelings with behavior, but we need to teach them to use their words to solve a conflict, rather than engaging in an escalating battle of wills.” Typically, Houseman says, children will calm down when they feel they are understood.
Giving them a sense of control, and some choices to make, also helps to settle them down.“So if your child wants a candy bar, and you think they’ve had enough, tell them that tomorrow they can have one, and that they can pick the time. This makes them feel more secure, less out-of-control,”she says.
Be respectful of children’s personal space: Relish time with the relatives, but from afar, advises LaRowe.“Enjoy times with your family and friends, but remember that just because you recognize and warm up to Great-Granny doesn’t mean Junior will,”she says.“Never force a child to give a kiss, or to be held by anyone.”
Instead, tell people to ignore the kids – and that the kids will eventually come to them eager to explore all the new faces.
Everyone will be pleasantly surprised at the affection-fest that will happen – when it’s not forced.”
Trust your instincts: “If you think a situation is going to be too much for a child, then trust your gut and don’t put both of you through an unpleasant time,”says Valenti.
Remember that the holiday season is for celebration and enjoyment. My first Christmas as a single mother was a disaster, because there was no one there but me to open those plastic packages securing just about every toy, unscrew the little hatches and put the batteries in. We sat for what seemed like hours, waiting for the go-cart to actually go . For the second Christmas, I undid all of the packaging the night before, installed whatever was needed and rewrapped it. My kids enjoyed the day, without me sweating bullets about what “Enter slot A into slot
Make an escape plan:
When I was a kid, I was expected to sit through a holiday dinner, whether I liked it or not. I did it, but only because of the death stare I’d receive from across the table if I acted up.
Today, parents understand that sometimes Eastham turnips, Wellfleet oysters and Wareham cranberries may be yummy for the adults, but not necessarily for the kids. And that sitting still for hours on end is torture.
Many of today’s parents realize that the holiday is supposed to be fun , and hatch an escape plan if their 5-year-old gets antsy at the table.
“Be prepared,”Valenti says.
“And let your child know your plan. Give them the option of going to their room, with you, for a couple of moments. Give them a chance to have a quiet moment with you, to reconnect with you and let them know that you are there for them.”
Feed the kids first: My brother is sweet enough to invite my mom and dad, my kids and me over sometimes and cook us a great meal. But because he doesn’t have children, he’s happy to linger, chatting with the family, before getting dinner on the table. After a few rough years, I
concluded it was easier to feed the kids a couple of hot dogs before we set out for Uncle Mike’s house, and simply give them tiny portions when dinner, eventually, was served.Voila! My children transformed from monsters to human beings, all because I had the foresight to meet their needs.
Ignore the relatives: Valenti urges parents to do what is right for their family, regardless of the relatives’ input.
“It can be a lot more fun for everyone to keep a baby alert and passed around during a holiday, but if a parent knows that the baby needs a nap, then the parent has to do their job and put the baby in the crib,” she says.
Same goes for too much sugar, too much roughhousing, too many presents, etc.
“A parent needs to be clear on why they are making these decisions for their children, and just acknowledge that others may not agree. If they criticize you, that’s OK,”says Valenti.“That is their business.
Yours is taking care of your child. Sticking to what you know is best for child will forestall a meltdown,”she says.
Keep the gifts to a minimum:
Michelle LaRowe urges parents to give a couple of truly wanted gifts, rather than a deluge under the tree.Valenti says,“We’ve all seen the theory proved true.You purchase a huge dollhouse for your angel and she’s thrilled: that she can fit into the box! Kids are impressed with most anything, so think twice before going overboard.”
Remember, it’s about giving: When my youngest son was 5, we made beautiful terrariums for our family members and for a couple of friends.The problem was, when it came time to giving them away, he wanted to hang on. A critical lesson for children during the holidays is
to remember that it is about charity, giving back and goodwill.
Have your children wrap gifts for Toys for Tots, or make a present for an elderly neighbor, saysValenti.
Acts of giving remind us all that the holidays can be a peaceful, tantrum-free time.