How To Survive Family Holidays

You know at the beginning of Home Alone, where they have all these people from three different branches of the family, stuck in one house right before a holiday flight? That’s how we always picture crazy Christmas. Loud yelling, no one knows what’s going on, the littlest kid drinking a ton of Pepsi and wetting the bed. Let’s not get started on dealing with Uncle Frank….

As much as we want to create a magical winter wonderland for our whole family, it can be one of the biggest challenges with younger kids in tow. The whole season just pulses with sensory overload, and sometimes extended family can be more of a bad influence than a helping hand. Whether you are traveling to see family or if family is traveling to see you, here are Mary and Patti’s tips for parents on surviving the holiday season.

1. Reframe Your Expectations
If you’re a mom, you probably have a big to-do list around the holidays. And no matter how much Christmas music we play, or how many decorations we put up, the holidays will always have some amount of stress.

Take a big-picture look at the needs and wants of your own nuclear family and see what craziness you can adjust or cut. This goes double for moms with babies and kids under four. Give yourself twice the amount for time you need to get anything done.

Maybe make two types of cookies instead of five. Or, take candid shots for your family holiday photo instead of hiring a professional photographer and getting matching outfits. From our past family experiences, the biggest disasters come when people have a strict idea of a “perfect” Christmas and they wear themselves (and everybody else) out trying to get there.

2. Make an Itinerary
This may seem a bit Type A, but for families with small kids, there’s no such things as “we’re just going to hang out.” On the flip side, having a ton of holiday activities and events stuffed into a 3-day visit sounds exhausting just typing it…

Try to nail down day-by-day plans well before any traveling is done. This will give you an idea of what to be prepared for and what you will need to prepare your kids. We try to have one morning activity and one afternoon activity per day, to keep the day moving but also not pack too much in. Also, make sure you and your partner are on the same page regarding the game plan. The last thing you want is a “I didn’t know we were doing that. What about…”, and having to change and compromise plans last minute.

3. Reframe THEIR Expectations
COVID regulations might have helped this cause a bit, but for the future, holiday plans should take the youngest family members into consideration.

Do you really want to take little kids to Midnight Mass? Is your aunt going to be offended when you tell her that your kid has a food allergy and can’t eat any of the elaborate 6-course dinner she made? Maybe you’re skipping seeing The Nutcracker this year and watching movies at home instead?

As much as you can communicate to your extended family ahead of time, the easier it will be for a smooth holiday, especially if you anticipate changing up your usual traditions. If there is some push back, acknowledge their disappointment but let them know that it is not their call to make.

4. Try your best to stick to routine
A big flight or long road trip is automatically going to have a big impact, but even a small stimulus, like Grandma walking through the door, can throw off your child’s routine. Around the holidays, we find ourselves making allowances for moving mealtimes or staying up an extra 30 minutes, but over a few days, these lapses can result in escalated meltdowns, bad sleep schedules, or (tragically) potty training regression…

Please, please, please make a valiant attempt to stick to your daily routine. The more kids can anticipate what comes next, the more you can avoid the frustration. This also means preparing your family members with the routine, especially: nap times and bed times, setting meal/snack times, and having quiet hours.

5. Don’t Submit to “Granny Law”
You know, when grandma/grandpa (or in our case Lola/Lolo) gives your child 5 cookies for breakfast because he asked so sweetly. Or, when they say that your kids don’t have to eat what’s on their plates if they don’t want to. They’ll just make them whatever they want. Sure, it’s not a big deal…until they hand you a Tasmanian devil that somewhat resembles your kid. It’s frustrating, aggravating, and at times just down-right disrespectful. 

Drawing boundaries is a big deal for parents. Yes, grandparents are wonderful, and truth be told, their job is to dote on their grandkids and make them feel special, but don’t let them hijack your parenting work with bad habits.

6. Block Unsolicited Advice
The holidays have a way of allowing family members to give you their 2-cents on how you raise your kids. No one should have to deal with passive-aggressive statements or backhanded compliments.

Statements like, “Your parents have no idea what they’re doing,” “I think you’re too strict on your kids,” or “I don’t get why you would (insert parenting technique here),” cross the line because it shows a lack of respect for your rules and ideas on parenting.

Phrases like, “Thank you for your concern, but I’m comfortable with the way I’m doing it,” or “I know you have a different perspective, but this is how we want to do things,” help shut down that unwanted conversation.

7. Go Outside
If the grandparents or aunts and uncles live in an active adult community or a condo, chances are there will not be a park or a playground nearby. Get on Google maps and find the nearest playground or community trail.

By the second or third day of vacation, toddlers and preschool aged kids will have gone through every gifted toy and will be begging to get outside and burn energy. So if you have a couple sleepy days ahead or if your family’s house is not kid-friendly, work in an hour or two of outside play daily to keep everyone happy.

8. Have Private Family Time
In normal years, our family Christmases could have anywhere between 6-10 people, not including the kids. While we love seeing extended family and catching up, the constant talk and attention can be trying for little kids. Patti’s husband when he was little, once had so many aunts and uncles asking him questions, he backed into a wall and curled into a ball.

If you anticipate being around more people than usual this holiday, in addition to being safe and social-distancing, block out some time for just your family unit. Going to the park or on a walk with just mom and dad can help your kid reset mentally and emotionally.

9. Just the Two of Us
One of the perks about visiting family is the availability of a willing babysitter. Sounds cheesy, but don’t feel bad about it. More than likely, relatives (mainly grandparents) want to spend time with your kids over the holidays, not you. So, if the opportunity presents itself, go enjoy your time together. Just be home by midnight.

10. Make it Work
Quoting Tim Gunn on this one. The most important thing regarding the holidays is to be together. If someone’s burning dinner, make it work. Your toddler bites the dust going sledding? Make it work. You have to rush child-proof your relative’s house? Make it work.

Over time and with a glass of wine, holiday disasters all become funny stories anyway. Younger kids will have memories made with their loved ones and really, isn’t that what the holidays are all about?

Happy Holidays! ~Mary & Patti

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