What children want during a holiday season is much the same thing they want all year long -- relaxed time with their parents and to be showered with gifts and attention. But the things that make a season "magical" for children -- presents and celebrations -- can also make it stressful and hectic for parents. The result can be unmet expectations and disappointments for the whole family. But there are ways to have a more meaningful and enjoyable holiday with your children. 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 child will do best if you keep to regular routines, especially sleeping and eating routines. You may want to feed your child before a holiday party if you don't know when the meal will be served, or if you aren't sure your child will eat it. Suggest that you all take an afternoon nap if you'll be up late.
If sticking to routines isn't possible, at least try to maintain a regular schedule in the weeks leading up to holidays. Try also to avoid making major changes in your child's life during this hectic time. For example, this is not a good time to move your toddler from a crib to a bed. That can wait a few weeks.
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. You might listen to holiday music together, read favorite stories, go to concerts, choose a night to watch a classic movie, or spend time preparing food as a family. Try to involve your child in the planning and choosing of these rituals, and mark them on your calendar with stickers or drawings. That way, even pre-readers will know when "cooking day" is coming up.
Manage your child's expectations about gifts
Letting your child know in advance what he can 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 child to make a wish list of what he most wants. Then let him 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 child become an educated consumer by watching a program with her. 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 child'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 child before a holiday, you might let your child open it in advance. That way, you can avoid overload on any one day and the sender can have the pleasure of enjoying your child'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 child to think about others by becoming involved in a project at home like cleaning up and recycling the toys she has 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 child's behavior
It's natural to want to show off your child 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 child wear a special dress or a hairstyle she hates. Give your child some say in what he will wear and how he will look, whenever possible. Avoid general comments like, "I want you to act nicely," or "Use good manners." State specifically what your expectations are: "I want you to ask to be excused before you leave the table," or "Do not exclude your brother when you are playing with your cousin." But don't expect perfection.
When visiting others, try to achieve a balance between being a good guest and doing what is best for your child. For instance, if your child is an older infant experiencing stranger anxiety, she may get upset being passed from one adoring relative to the next. Or if your highly energetic 4-year-old doesn't do well opening too many gifts in front of a large group, you may want to have him open some of them later when the group has broken up. Most people will understand, especially if you explain.
If you will be seeing a relative your child hasn'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 the house, 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 child's needs if there are special circumstances
If your family has recently experienced a divorce, death, illness, job loss, or other big change, be aware that your child is surely going to feel the effects of this change around a holiday. In the case of a death, you may want to find a way to remember that person during this year's celebration. If your child is part of a blended family, it's important to support her efforts at gift giving for stepparents and stepsiblings, even though this may be difficult for you. It could mean a lot to your child.
As a parent, you can help your child by acknowledging that a holiday will be different this year from past years. Give your child the opportunity to express his feelings. Your child 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.
If you will be away from your child for a holiday, let him know what your plans are so that he won't feel sad for you and he will know where to reach you. Plan a way to celebrate together before or after the holiday.
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 child 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.
Written with the help of Rebecca Dion, master in social services, LCSW, QCSW, CEAP. Ms. Dion is regional director of Behavioral Health Residential Services at Northwestern Human Services and is a member of the National Association of Social Workers. She is past board member of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse.