Updated: Dec 3, 2018
Our children who have difficulty with transitions, unfamiliar situations, social interaction, and not doing what they want can feel inordinate pressure during the holidays. The ramifications of this pressure can create pressure for everyone around them.
Here are some tips that may help.
SHARE YOUR PLAN WITH YOUR CHILD AHEAD OF TIME
You may have been planning and thinking about the holiday for days – not so for your child. Your child needs to have his own plan as much as you need one. Part of his plan could include being part of yours.
While making cranberry relish together – part of your plan – you can have a conversation about what you expect to happen and what needs to be done.
Spell it out in detail so your child can picture it in his head – breakfast, shower, teeth, dress in clothes laid out the night before, pack up toys to take, wait, get in car, get out of the car, grandma coming out of the house for hugs and kisses, saying you are not into kisses, depositing food in the kitchen, saying Hi or not to the folks watching football, finding “his comfortable spot” which he can go to when he needs a break – sometimes with you – with his drawing pad, game, drink, snack, etc. He might also want to bring a small transitional object that can connect him with the familiar.
The two of you could even create a very special job he could plan on to help Mommy during the gathering.
DO A DRESS REHEARSAL
Dress rehearsal is practicing what to say and do as well as some possible reactions. This would give your child the opportunity to express what he feels and expects. The two of you could then have a dialogue about it.
For example, instead of pushing your child to kiss grandma, warn him about what she might want and rehearse “Sorry Grandma, I’m not into kissing.” Part of the process could include your child drawing or writing about the desired behavior.
Sharing a story about when you didn’t want to go to a family gathering could also be fun. If you don’t have a story, feel free to make one up and act it out.
Explain that it can be tricky to predict because we can’t always know – “I’m not supposed to know?” as one of my students says.
DON’T LET OTHER RELATIVES PRESSURE YOU OR YOUR CHILD
Don’t let other relatives pressure you into expecting behavior you know your child is not capable of giving at that moment. Tell them your child will do some awkward behaviors. Then explain that your child needs to be accepted the way she is and not to take the behavior personally.
Your child’s job is not to live up to another’s expectation but to do the best she can—even when it doesn’t look like much. Explain that you will step in and address the problem, knowing full well there could still be a meltdown.
If your child tends to have meltdowns, accept that at least one is likely to occur during a holiday gathering. Being prepared can help you support your child through it.
Noticing the clues of an emerging meltdown can sometimes forestall a full-blown one. Try asking a question like “What can I do to help you come to the table?” Sometimes it can be as little as giving some transition time or reading a page in a picture book. You could also take a break together or remind him of his very important job he planned for and needs to do. If he balks, you can help him get started.
GIVE THEM TRANSITION TIME
This can be helpful not only before and during a family gathering but in daily life: “In a half an hour, we will be going to the table for dinner. You can play until then… We have five minutes before you need to wash your hands for dinner.”
In general, allowing for transition time when there is going to be a change of location or activity can promote a smoother shift from one activity to another.
CHECK IN PERIODICALLY
If your child is playing with kids successfully, still check in. They still need to feel connected to you and checking in with support and interest can help. Remember, a check in does not mean taking over or changing the activity.
My five-year-old granddaughter taught me this lesson. I thought I didn’t want to intrude on her play with her cousins. She thought I was rejecting her, so she rejected me. We talked about it, and all was repaired.
GIVE THEM A WAY TO SAVE FACE
Books, games, videos, asking a sibling to play something specific with him can help with this. I am not a great proponent of video games, but during a highly social situation, which may only feel like insupportable pressure, go for it. It could give your child the break she really needs.
If your child still has a meltdown or oversteps, help her through it. As you re-enter with her, don’t talk about the unexpected behavior. You already have or decided to talk about it at a later time and in private. Instead, you could show off the drawing you and she might have drawn as she settled down.
Being flexible doesn’t mean no boundaries. It means clear, consistent boundaries. Yes, you can negotiate. But if you do change your mind, your child needs to know you are making an exception to the rule. Your child feels safe when he knows you are in charge. This is as important as knowing you are on his side.
Following these tips can look like a lot of work, which it is. Seeing it as a golden opportunity to collaborate, be mutually respectful, connect, and explore new ways of being can help.
"THE MANNER IN WHICH WE COMMUNICATE AFFECTS OUR JOY OF BEING ALIVE" -- LINDA