Attempting a stress-free visit with your family this holiday season may seem about as likely as scoring a front-row parking spot at the mall on Christmas Eve. First, there are the logistics to conquer — long road trips, exhausting flights, and scheduling conflicts. Even if everyone arrives on time and intact, the stress is far from over. As parents of young children, you want to prove that your children are lovely angels, calm, polite and well behaved. Yet visiting family during the holidays almost always results in over-stimulated children away from their routines. The following scenario inevitably follows: crash, burn and meltdown. And sometimes, the kids melt down too!
But what if this season could be different? What might it feel like to walk away from those family visits feeling refreshed and connected?
There is good news. This scenario is within reach. Here is a brief checklist to help you ensure a stress-free family visit this holiday season, no matter how far (or close) you travel.
Make pleasure the goal from start to finish
Most parents focus on pleasing the host of the event, making sure the children are dressed nicely, attempting to arrive on time and showing up with the perfect gift or appetizer. Unfortunately, these attempts are often at the expense of their own family’s needs. This holiday season, try slowing down and think about what you need to make your visit more pleasurable.
Should you book a direct flight instead of enduring a prolonged layover? Sure, the cost might increase, but it may save your sanity. Or perhaps you like the adventure of an indirect flight, as it allows for more family time. Perhaps leaving at the crack of down will allow for less traffic, even if it means a few missed hours of sleep. The secret is to focus less on getting to your destination and more on the sheer enjoyment of the journey. This will set the mood for a pleasurable visit when you arrive.
Get off of Auto-pilot
It can be tempting to focus on everyone else during your visit and forget about your own needs. As an adult child, you might find yourself falling back into old family dynamics, assuming a role you no longer play in real life. For instance, you might be known as the responsible one, the family jokester, the helpful one, the quiet one. Stop for a moment to assess the vibe when you arrive.
As the so-called responsible one, do you find yourself scurrying around, trying to please everyone? As the jokester, do you find yourself falling into silly mode instead of being taken seriously? Resist the temptation to please everyone and instead stay in touch with your own needs. Also, be aware of your spouse’s needs too, so the two of you are united in your visit. As a result, you’ll find yourself more relaxed and less stressed.
Chat with your partner about expectations
Most people don’t make the end goal part of the process. As a result, when expectations are not met, people fell let down. Several days before the actual event, take time to discuss your visiting and traveling expectations with your partner. Put it all out on the table, leaving no minor detail neglected.
For example, what specific time do you want to leave your driveway or arrive at the airport? What sorts of things would you like to pack? What items will you include if the weather takes a turn for the worse? Don’t forget to pack your creature comforts — the things that bring you joy as you travel. This could include your favorite snacks, a comfortable pillow or some good music on your phone’s playlist.
Before you travel, discuss the various potential scenarios that could occur. If you have an exceptionally difficult relative, don’t expect them to change. Just adjust your expectations, so you don’t get caught up in all the predictable drama. Discuss what subjects to avoid at the dinner table. Religion and politics are usually good ones to avoid.
Lastly, make plans ahead of time for your travels home. What time would you like to leave for the airport? Are there any creature comforts you’d wish to pack for the flight? Having these things handy will add to your stress-free holiday visit.
Talk about good behavior in advance
Before leaving for your visit, call a family meeting and give the children the run-down. Just like a coach calling the plays, explain to them exactly what will be happening during your visit. Talk to children about the sort of behavior that is appropriate. If your parents like to say grace before the meal, remind your children about it. Doing so will help them avoid a surprise.
Say things to them like, “At Grandma’s house, we use inside voices, and we do not run .” Run through a few scenarios with them and do a bit of role-playing to make it fun. What will you do if one of the cousins starts an argument? What if Grandpa pipes up with a dirty joke? What if Great Aunt Bertha complains of the noise again? Discussing these things beforehand will allow for a smoother visit for everyone.
Take the Group in Smaller Doses
Just because everyone has decided to do something together doesn’t mean you have to join in, especially if you are feeling tired and stressed out. If someone suggests a group card game or a long game of Monopoly, don’t be afraid to bow out politely. You may prefer visiting with someone one-on-one, and that’s perfectly fine.
Maintain your schedule
Young children get stressed out by strange events. Even a small deviation from the routine can feel like chaos or uncertainty to them. To avoid a meltdown, keep your children on their usual routine as much as possible. Children need the security of these everyday habits, especially when away from home.
Do what you can to keep them on schedule, and be patient when they get hyped up or irritable. Try sticking to nap times, and ensure everyone gets enough sleep. Even adults need their rest too, so make sure you don’t neglect yours.
Maintain age-appropriate expectations
Asking a three-year-old to sit quietly at the dinner table during long talks may not be reasonable. Talk with the other parents of young children and see if the children can perhaps be excused from the table to watch an age-appropriate video in a separate room. Remind your folks that if the children are required to stay at the table, either the conversation or the children’s behavior will quickly decline. Most likely, they will understand.
Children need downtime to relax, nap, play and connect. If they become overstimulated, they will melt down, and chaos could ensue. Take a moment to make sure they are settled and well adjusted. What do they like to do at home to relax? Does a nice, warm bath calm them down?
To keep your sanity, make sure every day of your visit includes some downtime, complete with your child’s favorite activity to help them recharge. Resist the temptation to plan too many events in one day. When little ones get fussy, take them outside to decompress. When they dissolve into tears, hold and soothe them or bring them into a private place to calm down. You’ll find that after your child gets a chance to vent, he will feel (and act!) much better.
Stay connected to your children
For some parents, there’s no greater delight than seeing the children all gathered together, with their cousins, playing nicely and connecting. However, when visiting family during the holidays, it’s important to remember to still connect with your children on a regular basis.
For a child, feeling disconnected in a strange place can cause even the most resilient to melt down. Take a few moments to cuddle with your children before getting out of bed. Discuss how the day will unfold, even if the routine will be the same as the day before. Don’t forget to pack their familiar favorites from home — a favorite book or stuffed animal to help them relax at night. Sharing these precious moments will help everyone relax, and stay connected.
Avoid proving yourself
Let’s be honest. Family visits can be stressful. Even as adults, we often find that our parents still have a way of pushing our buttons. It can be tempting to try to prove yourself to your parents, showing them you’re a well-established and grounded adult. Instead of falling into this trap, simply remind yourself that you are doing your best and that you have nothing to prove. You are a grown up now, finally wearing your big-boy pants. You have officially arrived. It’s called parenthood.
A Point to Ponder
Your visit won’t be perfect, only because life isn’t perfect. But if you create a plan and share it with your children and partner ahead of time, the odds of you visiting your family without stress this holiday season will significantly increase. So make your plan, adjust your expectations, sit back and enjoy the ride from start to finish.
Author: Steve Cuffari For many, Steve Cuffari is the mentor that parents call on to make their parenting style warmer, easier and more affective. He is the founder of inTouch Parenting, a company devoted to helping today's parents calm the chaos, raise emotionally intelligent kids, and nurture families that thrive. read more about Steve Cuffari here...