By Michelle Mady
The holidays are coming. There is something so exciting, especially this year, about the thought of seeing extended family. I know that I can’t wait for our annual Christmas party, where my grandmother enjoys time with seven of her children, 19 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren. It is a busy, but fun, day.
As much as large family gatherings are exciting and special (and will never again be taken for granted), they can be stressful. And as stressful as they may be for adults, children can be really thrown off by this joyous time.
As much as large family gatherings are exciting and special (and will never again be taken for granted), they can be stressful.
So how can we prepare children for an event that will occur in a way that may have never been possible before in their lifetime?
Set Child Expectations Early
Think about your non-negotiables. It may be that your child takes a photo with Grandma. Or maybe you are going to stay until dessert comes out. Remember to keep these expectations realistic, as a child is unable to promise a tearless day, for example. Children can be held to some expectations that are similar in effort as expectations on a daily basis.
However, we do have to remember that these events, inherently, are a lot for a young child to take in. Add in how much of their life has been lived during a pandemic, and it can be downright overwhelming. With that in mind, decide on your expectations, and start to communicate them.
We do have to remember that these events, inherently, are a lot for a young child to take in. Add in how much of their life has been lived during a pandemic, and it can be downright overwhelming.
With that, give some wiggle room within your expectations. For example, maybe a picture with grandma is an expectation, but your child can decide how it is taken. So, they may not be comfortable sitting in Grandma’s lap, but will stand next to her for a photo op! Let your child know that this is an expectation and start to talk about different options for the picture so it becomes a specific.
One element that can be really difficult for children is the number of people getting together in one space. Whether you are renting a hall for over 50 of your relatives or inviting your parents to dinner at your house, there is likely to be an increase in the number of people together.
Even if your child knows Grandma well, and is a sea of other, less-familiar faces, it can be overwhelming. As you talk about the upcoming event, use photos of the people your child will see. And talk a little bit about how they are related. Is it a friend from childhood, or maybe your sister’s mother-in-law? Talking about how they relate back to the child can make interactions more meaningful, and possibly less anxious.
Your mother-in-law may have made a beautiful spread of food. But your 3 year old has only eaten bread and American cheese over the past week. So toss in some snacks or preferred food in your bag to serve them during the event. Are you headed to a home without children? A few extra toys and activities at the ready are going to help you get through it.
And as much as you are preparing your items, prepare yourself mentally. Do you anticipate eye-rolling when your child says “no thank you” to the meal and eats his fill of Goldfish instead? Will there be parenting advice that just doesn’t jive with your parenting philosophy? Just think of family events as in-person social media. Scroll on past the well-intended but slightly offensive comments. Don’t engage in the clickbait. And take your time flipping through those memories with loved ones.
As is true with most of parenting, holiday events are ones where the theme is typically “Choose Your Battles.” Deciding beforehand which ones you absolutely will (or won’t) choose will make it a better experience in the moment. You are not only preparing your child for these events, but also yourself. We know our children best, but the unexpected can still come up as they gain these new experiences, so keep your expectations a bit lower than normal and find some time to sit back and enjoy your family.
About the author: Michelle is a mom of 5 children ranging in age from 5 to 15. As a toddler and preschool teacher, she shares experiences, activities and guidance to other parents, as both a parent and as a professional early childhood educator, at any stage of their parenting journey.
Photo credit: iStock.com/skynesher