Trees and lights. Snow and sledding. Family and holidays. For many of us, these are naturally joyful pairs (trees and lights are especially exciting if you’re a toddler or a cat). Of course there’s the other side, too. Some people hold their breath and just hope for the best, especially if they’re spending the holidays with extended family (according to this Harvard Medical School article, 62% of adults experience “very” or “somewhat” elevated stress levels, partially attributable to family relationships). After all, family dynamics can be tricky, especially once we have children. Yet, we want our children to experience all the joy that should come with family and holidays, right?
Although I won’t write about my own family here because they’ll read this—I mean, because they’re perfect (ahem)—I’ll tell you how some people I know enjoy holidays with extended family, even it doesn’t exactly jingle their bells. So, what do they do differently to find joy?
1. They know their influence.
If you’re concerned about extended family being a less-than-desirable influence on your kids, find joy and peace in the connection you’ve created. If you’ve parented with the good of the parent-child relationship in mind and your kids are securely attached, then they’ll naturally gravitate back to the norms of what you’ve modeled for them.
2. They have their kids’ backs.
If you happen to have a child who hangs back at family gatherings, that’s perfectly alright. If you’re concerned about it, this article about supporting quiet children might help you. Your kids will join in when they’re ready. Let them rest securely in the knowledge that you support their choices and their timing. For family members who might not understand your child’s reluctance to jump right into a big group of people, but who sincerely want to connect with them, you might share ideas like these about how to engage kids without overwhelming them.
Even outgoing kids need support and occasional breaks from the group. Allow them to relax and in your presence, with your full attention. A hug and some verbal support can go a long way.
The more you’re there for your kids, the less they’ll begin to equate holidays and stress, and will simply find joy in your presence—along with everyone else’s.
3. They maintain a sense of continuity.
Many kids love routines and consistency, regardless of age. You can grab your kiddos’ usual bedtime story and stick it in your bag if you’re visiting relatives out of town. Odds are good that they’d much rather hear the same story for a few nights in a row than to go without. I call it “Routine in a Box.” A few comforts from home will help your child find joy in familiarity, and help you feel merry and bright!
The same goes for touch, even for older kids. If your child normally has a lot of contact with you throughout the day, then he or she will be inclined to crave that and then some (hey, you’re their personal lovey!). Stay present. Keep touching.
4. They remember holiday stress is temporary.
Obvious, right? Still, somehow, many people go into the holidays with extended family as if they were signing up for a hot date in Purgatory. If you find yourself there (with anxiety, I mean, not in Purgatory, because I don’t really think that’s a thing), give yourself a gold star for each moment you feel peaceful. Acknowledging and tracking positive feelings among the stressful ones can help you be aware that good things are happening. You can do this, joyfully. Holidays and stress don’t need to share the same strand of lights.
5. They keep an open mind.
Just like many of us do at home when raising kids, you can take the “pick your battles” mantra on the road, too. It travels beautifully! Things are different now. As the parent of your own children, you get to examine how you were raised. Engage where you want to. Debate where it’s important. Ask yourself if you share your extended family’s perspectives or have a different take on things. If you observe them, some of your triggers from growing up can offer you insight into your own parenting. Keeping an open mind can be an incredible gift with psychological benefits, and taking an intellectual approach rather than an emotional one when something bothers you can do wonders for reducing holiday stress. So, you can find joy while you examine your family anew.
6. They consciously look for joy.
More than anything else, they look for opportunities to connect and find joy intentionally. If Great-Great-Great-Granny’s mince pie doesn’t do it for you, remember that the cookies are just on the next table over. Connect with Great-Great-Great Granny over a gingerbread house. Invite her outside to catch snowflakes on your tongues. You might be surprised what she can still do. You, and your kids, will forever cherish the memory.
Holidays and family can, indeed, be a joyful pair. Our children can see it and be a part of it. If we’ve not experienced joy with extended family before, our kids can witness our ability to find it in a whole new way. What a wonderful gift we can give them in allowing them to be part of that.