What children want during a holiday season is much the same thing they want all year — relaxed time with their parents and to be showered with loving attention. But, the things that make a season magical for children —surprises and celebrations — can also make it stressful and hectic for parents. The result can be unmet expectations and disappointments for the whole family. By looking at your child's needs, your needs and what kind of holiday you want for your family, you will all be better prepared to truly enjoy those holidays.
Try to stick to routines
With all the excitement surrounding holidays, many children become overtired and wound up, skipping naps and meals, and not getting to bed on time. This can spoil their good time and yours. Your children will do best if you keep to regular routines, especially sleeping and eating routines. You may want to feed your children before a holiday party if you don't know when the meal will be served, or if you aren't sure your children will eat it. Suggest that you all take an afternoon nap if you'll be up late.
Build up to holidays slowly
During holidays that require a lot of planning, many parents are so busy they actually wind up spending less time than usual with their children. But, if you spread out holiday rituals over several weeks, you can plan activities to bring your family together in relaxed and meaningful ways. This also helps prolong the pleasure of the holidays, since all the excitement and activity isn't concentrated in just one or two days.
If a parent is deployed, record a special holiday message or prepare a package to send. Try to involve your children in the planning and choosing of these rituals, and mark them on your calendar with stickers or drawings if your children are young.
Manage your children's expectations about gifts
Letting your children know in advance what to expect in general terms will help prevent a meltdown on the actual holiday. One way to begin the conversation about gifts is to ask your children to make a wish list of what they want most. Then let them know if any item is completely out of the question. If possible, it's best to explain, "I wish I could get you a new bike this year, but we can't afford it."
Remember that television plays a big role in shaping children's expectations about gifts. You can cut back on TV during this time or help your children become an educated consumer by watching a program with them. Point out how many commercials there are and how often the toys and products sold on TV don't seem to work as well in real life. Even young children can understand some of this message.
In setting expectations about gifts outside the family, you might talk to relatives and friends about how to handle presents if this feels comfortable. You might suggest one gift for your whole family on holidays and individual gifts for birthdays. You could also mention to your children's favorite relative that planning a special activity together for after the holidays would be a perfect present. If a relative does bring a gift for your children before a holiday, you might let your children open it in advance. That way, you can avoid overload on any one day and the sender can have the pleasure of enjoying your children's reaction firsthand.
Encourage generosity and the gift of giving
Add a giving tradition to your family's holiday ritual. Ideas include donating clothes, helping out at a senior citizens' center or contributing a gift for a child through a toy drive. You can teach your children to think about others by becoming involved in a project at home like cleaning up and recycling the toys they have outgrown and passing them on to a shelter for homeless families. All of these efforts help take some of the focus away from "me."
Be clear about your expectations for your children's behavior
It's natural to want to show off your children to relatives and friends on holidays. But, try to avoid battles that will ruin the day for all of you, such as insisting that your children wear a special outfit or a hairstyle they hate. Give your children some say in what to wear whenever possible.
When visiting others, try to achieve a balance between being a good guest and doing what is best for your children. For instance, an older infant experiencing stranger anxiety may get upset being passed from one adoring relative to the next. If your highly energetic toddler doesn't do well opening too many gifts in front of a large group, save some of them for later when the group has broken up. If you explain the situation, most people will understand.
If you will be seeing a relative your children haven't seen in some time, look at pictures of the person beforehand and remind your child of how you are all connected.
Settle on traditions that feel right for your family
Children take tremendous comfort and security from being able to count on the same rituals and traditions every year, whatever they are in your family. These do not have to be monumental events. They can be simple activities like decorating your home, eating certain foods, listening to special music or attending a religious service. Don't be afraid to re-evaluate a tradition that is taking too much time, that is too expensive or that your family has outgrown. Talk with your children about which traditions mean the most to them and which ones they feel don't fit with your family's needs anymore. Keep in mind that something new you do this year to commemorate the holidays could become next year's cherished family tradition.
Be aware of your children's needs if there are special circumstances
If your spouse or partner is deployed, or if your family has recently experienced a divorce, death or other big change, your children may especially feel the effects of this change around a holiday. As a parent, you can help your children by acknowledging that a holiday will be different this year from past years.
- Do something you wouldn't ordinarily do – Instead of celebrating the holiday the way you have in years past, make an effort to keep busy in a memorable way. If you have always stayed home on the holiday, this year go to the movies, spend time with friends or relatives, or visit a museum that is open on the holiday.
- Discuss holiday plans with the deployed family member – You might want to plan a way to celebrate together before or after the holiday. Calls home are unpredictable, so remind your children that it's best not to count on a phone call from your service member on the holiday.
- Include stepfamilies – If your children are part of a stepfamily, it's important to support your children's efforts at gift giving for stepparents and stepsiblings, even though this may be difficult for you. It could mean a lot to your children.
- Consider ways to remember a loved one – In the case of a death, make remembering a loved one part of this year's celebration. You might want to make an ornament, decorate an Easter egg in memory of the family member or honor your relative's memory in a special way at Hanukkah or Passover.
- Give your children the opportunity to express his feelings – Your children may be more apt to open up if you can share some of what you are feeling. Acknowledging feelings of sadness, anger and loss can help bring your family closer together. It can also help you move on to enjoy holidays more.
Mark the end of the holiday with a closing ritual
All of the buildup and excitement before a holiday can lead to feelings of letdown afterward. You can help your children get back to a normal routine by marking the end of a holiday period with a closing ritual. Your ritual might be to take down the decorations, write thank-you notes to relatives and friends or place the pictures you took this holiday in a photo album filled with family memories.
Planning ahead for holidays and setting realistic expectations for yourself and others will help to make the time more enjoyable for everyone.