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Family Holiday Survival Guide

  • Hal Runkel ScreamFree Parenting
  • 2007 21 Dec
Family Holiday Survival Guide

When Andy Williams sang the lyric, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”, he must have been joking. What with presents to buy, parties to attend, and cheer to spread, we often find ourselves wondering what the heck is so happy about the holidays. If that describes you at all, it’s time for a little ScreamFree in your life. Here are three principles to guide you through the holidays with your sanity in tact.

1. Our kids are going to reflect our own attitudes and emotions.

If they are anxious, they are picking that up from us; if they are ungrateful, it’s because we’ve trained them to be that way; if they are unruly, it’s because we’ve allowed the craziness of the holiday to override their need for structure. Just the other day, I saw a bumper sticker that perfectly illustrates this concept. It read: My kids think I’m an ATM machine. This begs the question…Where did they get that crazy idea?

A common complaint that I get around the holidays is that kids are acting greedy when the holiday is supposed to be about giving. By recognizing the fact that kids are feeding off of our energy way more than we can ever imagine, we can start to see that we train our kids to be greedy by giving them far too much – it’s not the other way around.

If you find yourself frustrated with your children around the holidays, stop for a moment and take a look at what messages you are sending out.

2. Family vacation is an oxymoron.

Jerry Seinfeld said it best when he declared, “There is no such thing as fun for the whole family.” You don’t vacation with your children to see your family. You travel. Few things are more taxing than packing up the kids and braving the airport or the highways during the holiday season. If we kept that in mind, we might be able to keep our cool a bit better. But, when we either travel to be with our loved ones or they travel to be with us, we tend to forget how hard it is and we put far too much pressure on ourselves and those around us to have a “happy holiday”. We idealize the holiday season and begin to look for it to make up for the difficult things inherent in any family unit. In short, we expect the holidays to be the salve of the year.

With so much riding on this “vacation”, we tend to put an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves and everyone else to have a wonderful time. We set our expectations unrealistically high and feel like failures when reality falls short.

So, if Jerry was right, what can we do? There are two things you can do to release some of that pressure before it even begins to build:

• Find a middle ground between Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates. If we temper our expectations with a healthy dose of reality and perspective, the chances of actually having a fun family holiday increase dramatically. A simple phrase to remember might be, “It won’t be the worst holiday ever unless I try to make it the best.”

• Live in the present. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.” And starting right after Halloween, retail stores, commercials, and radio stations start pushing you towards those perfect holiday plans before you can even steal the last KitKat from your child’s candy stash. This may sound strange, but try this tip: Talk about plans only when absolutely necessary.

While some amount of anticipation is enjoyable, too much of it will actually increase the level of expectations we have and it will ultimately distract you from the present, which is really where your kids need you the most.

3. Remember it’s always easier to complain than it is to change.

Take a moment to think about what goes on with your children or your extended family during the holidays that just drives you nuts.

• Little Jason throws a tantrum because grandma bought him the wrong video game.

• Your mother spoils your kids rotten and makes your presents look like a joke.

• Your brother and his ungrateful brood leave their dirty clothes all over your floor and never pitch in after dinner to clean up.

Now think about this: It is far easier to point out what everyone else does during the holidays to make life miserable, but it’s far more difficult to point out our part in those patterns. Even though it is certainly more difficult, it is ultimately more beneficial. Remember, you are the only one that you can change. The next time you find yourself frustrated with your kids, remember this fact. Buying into this concept can allow you to focus on yourself and begin creating the type of holiday you’ve always wanted.

If you really want to have a better, more peaceful holiday this year with your kids (or anyone for that matter), turn the tables on traditional finger pointing. Instead of finding blame, ask questions! Ask your spouse and your kids what you do around the holidays that seems to get under their skin. You just might be surprised at their answers.

Three Structures to Implement

Now that you've successfully regained your calm, you can put the following structures in place to create the kind of holiday you’ll be happy to remember.

1. Slow Down

We learned this one from our daughter Hannah when she was about 6 years old. On that Christmas morning, everyone started tearing into their presents. There were at least 15 people there and it was complete pandemonium. As I scanned the room with the video camera, I caught sight of my daughter tenderly holding a stuffed dog and shushing it. It was the first present that she had opened that morning and she hadn’t touched the rest of her huge stack. The grandparents caught sight of it as well and they began pressuring her to open the rest of her gifts. She was enjoying her dog and she saw no reason to hurry along. She was overloaded by all of the chaos and she realized something that we hadn’t: by rushing through the opening of gifts, we were actually cheapening the activity. Now, our family takes its cue from her and opens presents one person at a time, one gift at a time. Sure it takes a while, but that’s the fun part. It reduces stimulus overload, it gives time for pictures, it builds lasting memories.

2. Speed Up

The old aphorism is true: fish and visitors smell in 3 days. Keep your family “trips” short and sweet. It’s always better to leave on a good note than to overstay your welcome. If you do find yourself staying longer than you’d like, remember this fact: just because you’re staying at someone’s house, doesn’t mean you should spend all of your time together. That’s just too much pressure on everyone involved. We shouldn't be shocked one family member lets off steam – that’s what pressure cookers do. So, build in pressure release valves in the form of one on one time with each of your kids. Let them vent. Empathize with them if they are annoyed by a cousin or if they miss their friends. By simply giving them a safe place to talk, you'll be creating lasting memories and building relationships. If you struggle with listening (a difficult skill, to be sure), remember the three best words you can use to get kids talking: “Tell me more.”

3. Idle

Take care of yourself during these most stressful of days. Take a really long shower – go see a movie – take a walk – go and get some coffee. Recharge and renew. If you can take mini-retreats away from it all – even in the midst of it all, you’ll be better equipped to be calm, cool, and connected when you return.

Hal E. Runkel, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the National Bestseller ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool, from Waterbrook Press. Visit for more information.