At the end of each holiday season, do you look upon your loved ones, cherish their existence, but vow never to host another holiday dinner?! Nevertheless, do you find yourself one year later, loading up on puffed pastry and ordering another oversized bird?! Why? Why do you bemoan what advertisers spend thousands of dollars fondly marketing as "The Family Gathering?"
There are many things that you can do to provide a setting for discussion, understanding and improve the familial outlook, not only for yourself, but for your children as well. Believe it or not, you can create an atmosphere that fosters, instead of foils, family unity!
Times are changing and families are more complex than ever. Family members live farther away, more mothers are in the work force, divorce, remarriage and mixed ethnic and religious differences all add to the stress children and families face today.
It sounds overwhelming because you have your own, and everyone else's, "family baggage" to contend with. These suggestions, however, will help through the weeks of festivities and will make it easier for you to get the children back on track when the holidays are over.
STEP ONE: Plan ahead.
Several weeks before the event, sit down and make a mental list of the things you are worried about. Are you concerned that older children will not want to participate and will prefer to disappear with their friends? Worried about how to handle issues of sadness and loss with regard to relatives who are no longer with you? Nervous about the tenuous relationships you may have with family members that might spill over along with your homemade soup?
If you can identify the sensitive issues before the momentous occasion, you can prevent much of the chaos and anxiety for yourself and your family. Don't forget to trust your instincts.
STEP TWO: Prepare yourself and your children.
Different age groups have different needs. It is imperative to develop age appropriate strategies for the problems you can anticipate.
Children ages 2-5
Young children often have trouble with changes in their daily schedule. They rely upon routine to structure their developing selves. Try to keep things such as bedtime, meal times, and the usual rules the same. When you need to make a change in the schedule, give children an explanation along with an accommodated plan, such as a nap, or a healthy snack. If they are in the middle of toilet training or some other developmental task, stick with it, but allow for slips stemming from the excitement and change.
Children want to be seen as big and capable. Give them specific tasks and responsibilities. For example, let the children make place setting cards or a welcome sign for guests. Suggest they find pictures of families in magazines and have them make a collage, or two...or twenty. Let the children help cook or set some part of the table. Help your children feel like an important part of the celebration.
Children ages 6-9
Many of the same concerns younger children have also exist for older children. Children this age want to be a part of things, but it is hard to make time for them while you are in the middle of everything you are doing. Give them jobs to do. Make the children holiday photographers with a disposable camera or a Polaroid. Have the children create a large family tree to be hung in the living room for the event. If you have guests from out of town, or out of the country, have the children learn a little about where they are from. Let the children help plan the menu, or, if you can handle it, allow them to cook one of the dishes or desserts. Lastly, if you can plan a few activities for the children ahead of time you can keep them busy, happy and feeling like they are part of the special occasion.
Remember to discuss with your children what you expect from them during the holidays. Are they required to wear something specific? Are they allowed to watch television? Do the children need to wait until everyone is done eating before they are excused from the table? Can they exclude other (younger) children in activities they are playing? Let your children be a part of the discussion and let them negotiate some of their own rules. Accommodating to some of the children's needs will make them feel "bigger" and more connected to the plan.
Children ages 10 and up
Adolescents and teenagers strive for independence while at the same time desire to remain connected with the family. Adolescents appear to want only to be with their friends by day and to stay on the telephone all night.
However, there is also an intense unexpressed desire to spend time with the family and take part in holiday traditions. There is room for negotiation and compromise when it comes to adolescents and teens. First, decide bottom lines. When do teenagers need to be physically present even if they balk? Are they allowed to invite a friend? Discuss the rules and regulations before the holiday. Be realistic and take adolescent needs into consideration. Try to engage them in the holidays and do not assume their complaints reflect a lack of interest, but rather a developmental conflict between growing up and staying childlike.
Develop family activities around the interests or your older children. For example, if your teens are Internet enthusiasts, assign them the role of teaching Grandpa about the computer, showing him chat rooms for the over sixty-five crowd. Teens also love television and movies. Create your own family film festival where different family members choose movies to watch. Think about a yearly showing of one special film, such as "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Big" for comedy lovers. Hand teenagers the video recorder and have them document the gathering. Be sure to play it later while everyone is still together and save it for holidays in the future.
Do not expect teens to verbalize or display enthusiasm about family togetherness. It may take years... and grandchildren, for both you and the children to recognize the importance and impact of the event.
Last but not least...
Remember, children of all ages can sense tension, which invariably exists during the holidays. Be honest with children in an age appropriate way. Limit the amount of information for younger children and let out more with older ones. It is all right to tell them you are worried, excited or angry. They feel it anyway. However, be careful not to over burden children with your emotional fallout because that can be hazardous as well.
You are a role model. Children will watch how you interact and handle your siblings and parents and assess how consistent you are in practicing what you preach. The more relaxed you are with all the chaos, the more at ease your children will be.
STEP THREE: Enjoy!
Do not agonize over the many things that can and will go wrong. Take some pressure off yourself and find shortcuts. Cook and obsess less, cater and assign dishes more. Consider taking the event to a restaurant. Create new traditions that reflect the changing times. Let go of the "perfect holiday" image, and spend more time with your family. Take care of yourself, plan ahead, and you will be better prepared to handle all that arises for your children, your relatives, and your guests. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!