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Strategies for holidays and family gatherings

Catch a 3-year-old having a meltdown in the middle of your family’s holiday get-together and you know he’s feeling stressed. If it happens to be your child who’s doing the melting down, you might even feel a little strung-out yourself – especially with all those relatives watching. At times like these, family parties can seem endless.

But just because your preschooler gags when offered her uncle’s special mashed parsnip and cranberry casserole doesn’t mean she’ll be cast out of the family forever. And even if all the other cousins are sitting there straight and tall, eagerly scooping up parsnips and daintily dabbing their mouths with their napkins, don’t worry. Every family knows the truth: There are no perfect children. And in the long run, family gatherings are about more than good behavior. They’re about valued and lasting relationships.

Still it never hurts to have a few strategies up your sleeve. So, here are a few to start with:

1. Preview the coming attractions

We all do better when we know what to expect. Take time to talk with your child about who will be there. If there’ll be relatives your child hasn’t seen for a long time, dig out the family album and look at pictures of them. Share your best memories of each person.

If she’s never been to the home where the party will be, tell her a little about it. You’re sure it has a bathroom, for one thing. Think about what else she might like to know. Will there be toys or should she pack some to take along? At dinner, will you all sit at one long table or will there be a children’s table? Kids like to hear about such details ahead of time.

Let your child know that he’ll have some say in what happens. For instance, tell him he can choose to play with his cousin’s dog, or he can just watch it from a distance. He can choose to sit near you, or he can go off with the other children. No matter what you come up with keep in mind that children, like most people, feel happier when they know they have a little control.

2. Hold a rehearsal

Will a family dinner be one of the main events? Have a rehearsal one night at home during supper. Pretend you’re all at the party. Run through the basics – which, depending on the age of your child, might be pretty basic. Keep your expectations child-sized. After all, nobody expects a toddler to be Miss Manners. But if your children are old enough, you can talk about what’s tactful to say if they don’t like a particular food they’re being offered. Or you can explain what they should do when they just can’t bear to sit at the table any longer.

3. Plan for intermissions

Parents are good at reading when their kids are about to go over the edge. If you sense that your child is starting to feel overwhelmed, tired or stressed, offer a change of pace before he or she falls apart. Invite your child to take a walk just with you. Or go off to play quietly together in another room. A few minutes of kindhearted attention from you can help your son or daughter regroup.

As a matter of fact, there’s probably not a person in your family who wouldn’t benefit by a few minutes of kindhearted, undivided attention. Maybe it’s something we might all consider giving each other at family gatherings – in addition to that mashed parsnip and cranberry casserole, of course.

Kids First is a department of the city of Aspen funded by the affordable housing/day care tax. Kids First provides information and funding for early childhood programs. For information, call Shirley or Jill at 920-5363 or e-mail kids_first@ci.aspen.co.us. This article is reprinted from The Well-Centered Child December, 2000, monthly newsletter, Willow Tree Publications, Naperville, Ill.


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