By Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, www.ahaparenting.com
We all want our relatives to see how wonderful our kids are. Unfortunately, taking children to visit over the holidays often doesn’t really give them a chance to shine. The kids get off their routines, overstimulated and disconnected from us. At that point, they 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. 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. 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.
3. 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. And don’t forget to read books about airplanes if you’ll be flying.
4. Early to bed and early to rise gives little ones time to explore a new 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 overwhelmed.
5. 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.
6. Have age-appropriate expectations. Young children can’t be expected to sit quietly while you enjoy a long dinner. Talk with the other parents of young ones and see if maybe the kids can be excused to watch an acceptable video. Your relatives can probably understand that if kids are required to stay at the table, either the conversation or their behavior will degenerate.
7. Be aware that kids are easily overstimulated. 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 his imaginary friend or little figurines? Make sure every day includes a little downtime with your child’s favorite activity to help him regroup. Allow ample opportunity for outdoor play and running around. Don’t plan too many activities. When they get fussy, take them outside to decompress. If he does dissolve into tears, hold and soothe him but don’t stop the crying. You’ll find that after he gets a chance to vent he’ll feel (and act!) much better.
8. 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 relatives in advance about limiting treats. And carry small protein-rich snacks with you so your child doesn’t have a meltdown waiting for dinner to be served.
9. 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 do you when Uncle Arnold wants to hug you hello?” “What if you don’t like a present you’re given?” “When you want to leave the table, how do you ask?” “What will you do if the cousins start arguing?”
10. 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 ensure 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 worse, 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.
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 reconnect 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.
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 your child’s mother or father, and you’re the one who has to take the final responsibility for 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 they aren’t making you tense. If you find yourself upset during your visit, you might want to do use some EFT tapping; see the link “Using EFT with Kids” on my Aha! Parenting website noted above. Mantras like “I’m a good mother!” help us keep our emotional balance. Most of all, pamper yourself and make sure that your own cup stays fullso 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!