No matter the holiday traditions or customs you observe, one thing is for certain: the children will be home for a week or two beginning very soon! No reason to panic. After all, adults never experience any stress over the holidays so why should kids? I tried to effectively demonstrate a tongue-in-cheek tone with that last sentence. I was testing your electronic social skills. Okay, back to the topic at hand. The children will be home for a while and you are becoming anxious that tempers may begin to flare or boredom may ensue. I offer the following general suggestions to hopefully sustain your holiday cheer throughout the school break.
- Increase predictability at home. This involves some scheduling, although flexibility should be allowed. For teens who need to catch up on some sleep, there should be parameters such as “awake by noon” but no need to be so scheduled (“Be up by nine because I said so!”) that arguments are inevitable . The more that children know what to expect, the less stress that will result when making transitions.
- Have a portion of each day scheduled but plan the rest of the time with the child by allowing for their input. You may need to offer a list of suggestions for them to choose from, but you should not be trying to win the contest for Entertainer of the Year. thus, it is not your responsibility to ensure that your child is having fun all the time! It may be useful to have a written or picture schedule for some children. This is especially helpful when you are resting in the afternoon and your child comes to you to say, “I’m booooored!” You can calmly refer them to the schedule and add, “I know you will figure out something fun to do from all those options, honey.”
- Keep an eye on your own stress level as there is a trickle down effect. As we reunite with family, all of those fun dynamics from childhood tend to surface. Children generally have fewer demands on them during breaks which is why they tend to do better behaviorally. If you need a break from your relatives, then don’t over schedule. Your kids will pick up on your stress and react accordingly.
- Remember to limit television time. I know this sounds crazy. After all it serves as an effective pacifier and most parents will ignore this suggestion. However, trying to get the child away from the TV after they are allowed unlimited viewing will not likely be met with willingness from the child. The recommendation for television viewing during the holidays is 1-2 hours each day (which includes other screen time such as computers and video games). Some children can effectively manage more, other cannot. Certainly, exceptions can be made for holiday movies, family videos, etc. The general rule is to keep an eye on the time, though, because school will again be in session and the child will then have to “detox” from all the television viewing as they begin to focus on the “boring” schoolwork again. Maybe reading a fun book in exchange for some of that TV time might keep the old brain cells fresh and sharp?
- Whenever possible, prepare the child in advance for holiday visits. If only someone would prepare you! It never hurts to discuss who will be there, what will take place (as much as you can anticipate before the first family argument occurs), and how long the visit will last. Children with sensory issues may need an escape plan that can be determined upon arriving to the party or gathering (or in advance if the location is familiar). The child can use this “escape” for a set period of time to regulate him/herself and then must return to the gathering. Bring a familiar item from home if your child is anxious about these visits. Also, talk to your family members in advance and if your child is shy or anxious, remind them to let the child warm up and not force hug, kisses, etc. upon greeting the child.
- Finally, prepare the child for transitions. My colleague, Dr. Rick Solomon, has devised 20 Transition Tricks that he recommends for parents who have a child who cannot shift easily from one activity to another. His general rule of thumb is to acknowledge the child’s feeling of not wanting to transition but then to begin to prepare them for what awaits. There are a variety of strategies such as time warnings, use of humor, and bribes-but ultimately the child needs to go where we need them to or there will be a consequence. Try to avoid these control battles whenever possible, though, and with some scheduling and preparation this will hopefully be a safe and happy holiday for everyone! If it’s not the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” then join the club. By keeping expectations reasonable and being able to laugh off some of the family dynamics that play themselves out across most households, this may result in the impression of a relaxing and enjoyable holiday!
Dr. Mark Bowers is a Licensed Pediatric Psychologist at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
© 2009 Mark Bowers, Ph.D.