It’s upon us: the holiday season! Thanksgiving is around the corner for those of us in the U.S., followed by the winter holidays, which usually means one thing for many of us: time with extended family.
Before we have kids, this time of year can feel like a lot, even if we have healthy and uncomplicated relationships with our family (ha!).
But when we add kids to the mix, the things we weather during this time of year—travel, delays, long meals, family dynamics, big feelings of all kinds, and increased stress due to all of this—can make us want to put a pillow over our heads until January 2nd.
While we can’t necessarily change our complicated family dynamics or remove all the stress from the holidays, there are a few things we can do as parents to make this time of year easier on all of us, especially our littlest members.
Since this time of year is all about giving thanks and giving gifts, I want to offer you some ideas on a few special gifts you can give to your kids that don’t require you to spend a single cent.
These gifts can help bring greater ease and joy to your time with family during this holiday season—something we would all be grateful for.
Even better, the benefits of these particular gifts can be felt and shared by all members of your nuclear family, whether there are two, four, or seven of you.
The Gift of Readiness (Or, Prepare Everyone)
Preparing our kids for what lies ahead is a gift at any time of year. At the holidays when so much happens and changes, this practice is an especially loving way to show our respect for them.
Preparation helps kids anticipate upcoming events and ask questions if they are old enough. It can allow them to relax around the events when they come.
At the holidays, take a little extra time to talk to your child about your plans in the days before you get together with family, especially if travel is involved. If your child is under 2, this can be a brief conversation in which you map out where you’ll be going, who will be there, and how your days might look.
Once your child starts to get a bit older, you can invite her participation in thinking about all of the above, as well as how it might feel to be in the new environment and with the folks who will be there. You can talk through what you might do in the car or on the plane, and plan for which special stuffies or toys might join you to bring a little extra comfort along for the ride.
My wise friend Alejandra Siroka taught me a related practice a few years ago that I love to use with my partner. Before we travel, my husband and I talk through what we hope to get out of our trip, and what we imagine it will be like. We take a few minutes to think about what we might need from each other in terms of support. This last piece can be especially helpful for the partner whose family is hosting the holiday; usually that person needs a little extra help to make it through.
The Gift of Space (Or, Take Breaks)
If you tend to pack as much family time as possible into a short visit, I want to encourage you—or give you permission, should you feel pressure from family—to build in some breaks.
When we travel to visit family at this time of year, I have always felt (and received the implicit message) that I needed to spend every waking moment with my family to “make the most of” our time together.
My husband and I started noticing that, with our son in the mix, we were enjoying our time with family less and less. Inevitably our evenings would end with us carting an over-tired, sugar-crashing toddler out the door, yelling thanks and apologies over our shoulders on the way out. That didn’t feel good to any of us.
We finally wised up and started building in one or two excursions to our family trips, where the three of us went off on our own for a few hours and did something low-key. These little breaks have made a world of difference to our patience with our son and with our larger family. They inject a dose of normalcy and connection to our trips that is sorely needed, and we all exhale a little bit before returning to the fray.
The Gift of Respect (Or, Don’t Require Hugs)
The holidays can feel stressful for kids just by the sheer number of adult faces and voices and touches and smells and questions and. . . you get the idea.
Excited family members can sometimes forget that it’s not polite to go right to hugging strangers—which is how it can feel for a kid who doesn’t remember Aunt Doris or possibly even Grandpa, if he hasn’t been around lately.
My belief is that it’s not fair to our kids to expect them to hug—or even touch, if they are not comfortable—people when it’s not their choice.
We show respect for our kids’ bodies, autonomy, instincts, and personal preferences when we don’t require this kind of touch OR allow it to happen by doing nothing when we see it coming. We also begin to teach them about the importance of consent.
If you have a particularly physical family, have a quick conversation with them before you arrive. If you’re comfortable, go ahead and be direct. Let them know respectfully that you’d like to request that they do not hug your child without asking, and without waiting for the child to get to know (or remember) them. Explain why.
If historically this kind of direct conversation doesn’t go so well in your family, you might let them know that you’re so looking forward to seeing them, and so is little Jack. He can’t wait to play with them and show everyone his new shoes. And you’d like to request that everyone give him a little space when he arrives, so that he can get comfortable and settle in.
If you’ve done this and a family member comes in for the hug anyway, you can physically put yourself between your child and the adult, or, if you’re holding your younger child, turn to the side and accept a hug from the adult. You might also say, “Jack feels comfortable giving hugs when he knows people really well.”
The Gift of Understanding (Or, Expect Feelings)
I can’t count the number of meltdowns I’ve seen in the airport, at the grocery store, or in line at Busch Gardens during the holidays. Tantrums and meltdowns are developmentally appropriate for young children in the best of times, and they’re so darn understandable during the holidays.
Sometimes, even with good preparation, a little extra space, and lots of respect, the whole family scene can just be too much for our littlest family members. If big feelings come, one of the most loving things you can do is take your child to a quiet place—your room, back to the motel—and let her have the feelings until she’s all done. Stay by her side. And then put her to bed.
Give your kid(s) the gift of a little extra patience and understanding during this time of year, especially if you’re with family. I bet you can empathize with what they’re going through.
Do you have other non-monetary gifts that you find especially loving or powerful to give to your child/ren at this time of year? Please share them in the comments!