Visiting Family for the Holidays
Hello Dr. Laura,
We're flying with our 18 month old and three year old to my parents for the holidays, and all the relatives will be there. I'm happy for them to meet their cousins, but I'm nervous. I know from experience that they'll be over-stimulated and I'll be defensive about my parenting. Any tips on how to make this easier?
We all want our parents to see how wonderful our kids are. Unfortunately, taking them to visit over the holidays often doesn't really give our children a chance to shine. The kids get off their routines, over-stimulated and disconnected from us. At that point, they're likely to crash and burn.
But there are some tips that will make a smooth visit more likely.
1. Check your own expectations. If your toddler is teething, he won't suddenly become less whiny. Your very active six year old isn't going to be less active at Grandma's. You can expect your difficult relative to be difficult again this year.
But life doesn't have to be perfect to be good. Your children can act terribly and it doesn't mean you're a terrible parent -- it means they're kids! I bet your parents remember you acting terribly once or twice, and you came out ok.
2. Print out photos of the folks you'll be seeing and make a little book for your child. Their faces will be somewhat familiar even though the situation isn't, which makes them feel safer, so they're less reactive. And don't forget to read books about airplanes!
3. Always explain to kids in advance what will be happening and what kind of behavior is appropriate. For instance, if your parents say grace before the meal and you don't, you'll want to demonstrate, and explain to your children why they'll need to be quiet for a few minutes. Role play with them or make a game of it before you go.
- "At Grandma's, we use inside voices and we don't run."
- "What if you don't like a present you're given?"
- "When you want to leave the table, how do you ask?"
- "What do you when Uncle Arnold wants to hug you hello?"
- "What will you do if the cousins start arguing?"
4. Early to bed and early to rise gives little ones time to explore the house early in the morning while other folks are still in bed. That will make them feel more comfortable even when the place starts hopping. Invite Grandma to see how wonderful your child is when she's rested and not over-whelmed.
5. Reassure the grandparents that their grandchildren are coming out fine. You're allowed to brag; these are grandparents! In quiet moments with your parents, you can explain anything about your parenting that you know they're having a hard time with, if you have that kind of relationship. Just emphasize that you've given it a lot of thought, and you're parenting this way because you're convinced it leads to kids growing up better adjusted. Thank your parents for supporting you, as they always have. If they give you a hard time, you can remind them lightly that they had their chance, and now it's time for you to make your own mistakes.
6. Since you're flying with the kids, be sure to read this advice on having a painless airplane flight with kids.
7. Keep your kids on their usual schedule as much as possible. Kids need the security of familiar routines. They're stressed by unfamiliar events and what feels to them like chaotic unpredictability. Do what you can to keep them on schedule and be patient when they get hyped-up or irritable. Be sure everyone (including you!) gets enough sleep.
8. Have age-appropriate expectations. An 18 month old and a 3 year old can't be expected to sit quietly while you enjoy a long dinner. Talk with the other parents of young children and see if maybe the kids can be excused to watch an acceptable video. Your parents can probably understand that if they're required to stay at the table, either the conversation or the children's behavior (or both) will degenerate.
9. Remember that kids are easily over-stimulated. Kids need downtime, just to chill out, snuggle, and do whatever relaxes them. If they don't get it, they can't really be blamed for melting down when the over-stimulation gets to them. What does your child do at home to relax? Take a bath? Play with her imaginary friend or his little figurines? Make sure every day includes a little downtime with your child's favorite activity to help her regroup.
Don't plan too many activities. When they get fussy, take them outside to decompress. Remember that laughter reduces the amount of stress hormones circulating in the body, so your child needs some real belly laughing every day to keep the stress of all that new-ness from getting to him.
If he does dissolve into tears, hold and soothe him, and take him into a private place where you won't feel pressured to shush the crying. You'll find that after he gets a chance to express all that tension he'll feel (and act!) much better.
10. Watch your kids' food intake in the midst of too many treats and hyped-up schedules. Many tantrums originate from hunger. And all parents recognize the sugar high that sends kids bouncing off walls and then crashing into tears. If necessary, speak with grandparents in advance about limiting treats. And carry small protein-rich snacks with you so your child doesn't have a melt-down waiting for dinner to be served.
11. Stay connected. Your children may love running in a pack with the cousins, which is, after all, one of the delights of family. But be sure to re-connect with them frequently. Feeling disconnected in a strange place can cause even the most resilient child to melt down over something small. Snuggle with your child every morning before getting out of bed. It's very grounding for kids to hear from you how the day is expected to unfold -- even if it will be a lot like yesterday. And bring some favorite books from home to help them reconnect and relax at night.
12. Remember that kids resist force and control. When we feel like our child is giving us a hard time while others are watching, our impulse is usually to use force, or at least to threaten it. But when we do that, we escalate the upset and insure that our child will argue with us and keep pushing to get her way. If, instead, we can remember that our child is giving us a hard time because she's having a hard time, we can usually "join" with her and avert the crisis. When we take the time to acknowledge our child's feelings, she's much more able to face her disappointment and move on. We can say "You were really hoping to finish the movie, but Grandma says it's time to eat....I know you're disappointed...It was at the exciting part, huh?....Do you want to ask Grandma if we can borrow it so you can watch it later?" At worst, she may need to cry a bit and then she'll be ready to come to dinner. For that reason, always give your child plenty of advance warning before transitions.
13. Empathy is your magic wand to de-fuse upsets. It won't always make challenging feelings disappear, but if you really see things from the other person's perspective -- not necessarily agreeing, or changing your own view, but understanding -- you'll find that the other person becomes more willing to understand your view. This is true for children, but it is also true for your critical aunt or worried father. So when your relatives criticize your child, listen and acknowledge their concern. And when your child balks, always start with empathy and reconnection. You may even find that your critical relatives are astonished at how your empathy helps your child calm down and re-group.
14. Love yourself through it. Don't forget that family visits can be stressful for you too. Parents have a way of pushing our buttons, even when we're grown. Don't feel like you have to prove yourself to your parents. You're a grown-up now, you're your child's mother or father, and you're the one who has to take the final responsibility about what's best for your child.
Your kids depend on you not only to regulate their environment, but also to help them regulate their moods. So if you're anxious in advance, do some journaling or blow off steam to a friend about your anxieties, so you don't start the visit tense. Forgive yourself in advance for not being perfect. If you find yourself upset during your visit, you might want to use some EFT tapping (here's a link on how to do that: Using EFT with Kids). Mantras like "I'm a good enough mother!" help us keep our emotional balance. Most of all, make sure to keep your own cup full of self love, so you can handle whatever comes up.
I'm betting your visit won't be perfect, just because life isn't. But if you can just focus on the good things, and shrug off the harder things, you'll be able to enjoy it anyway. Have a lovely holiday!
Photo: Thank you to Ana June!