A Guide to Enjoying Families and Children During the Holiday Season
Once again, the holiday season is upon us. Perhaps you were one of those who navigated Thanksgiving with family so successfully that you are not in the least concerned about Christmas. Or, perhaps you either didn’t see family on Thanksgiving, or you did, but the family navigation was a bit less successful, therefore you are headed into the Christmas season filled with apprehension. As a nation, 92 percent of us celebrate Christmas in some way. Only about half of us see Christmas as a religious holiday, while a third see it as a cultural holiday. While many things about Christmas have probably changed for you over the years, some things have not changed as much as you might think:
- While 91 percent of us attended a celebration with family either on Christmas Eve or Christmas day when we were children, a still-respectable 86 percent do so as adults.
- While 89 percent of us bought Christmas presents for family members (or our parents did so) as children, 86 percent of us now buy Christmas presents for family members.
- The number of us who put up a Christmas tree as a child vs. putting up a Christmas tree as an adult has dropped significantly (92 percent vs. 79 percent), as have the number of us who sent out Christmas cards as a child (or our parents did) compared with the number of us who send out Christmas cards today, as adults (81 percent vs. 65 percent).
These statistics tell you that our present-day Christmases are, to some extent, rooted in our past. And, while 69 percent of us say we look forward to time spent with family and friends during the holiday season, in some cases that time can have some awkward, or downright bitter moments. This year in particular, many experts have predicted there will be more contentiousness between family members because of one event—the presidential election. People feel more strongly about this year’s election than perhaps any other year in history. Whether you are on the left and your family members are on the right, you are dealing with the issues brought by a blended family or you are seeing family members with whom you have had past differences, a bit of pre-holiday preparation can make the holidays smoother and happier for all those involved.
It could surprise you to known that fewer than half (46 percent) of the children in the United States live in a “traditional” family (two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage). Compare this to 1960, when 73 percent of children in the nation fit this description, and 1980, when 61 percent fit this description. Divorce, remarriage, step-parents, step-children, children living with their grandparents, children living with same sex parents…the list goes on and on, as the definition of “family” continues to evolve.
These social changes, added to extended families who live a significant distance from one another, make the holidays an interesting and sometimes challenging time. In other words, your holiday can be a time of joy and togetherness, or could end up being a time of family tensions, awkward interactions, conflict and maximum stress levels. To squeeze the maximum amount of enjoyment and peace from your holiday season in the face of such challenges, consider some of the following ideas:
For Blended Families:
- When incorporating different sets of holiday traditions into a Christmas that pleases all those involved, perhaps the best advice you will get is to let go of your expectations. If your childhood Christmases and/or those you have spent with your own children involve a specific set of traditions, and your spouse and his or her Christmas traditions are either non-existent, or dramatically different from your own, having specific expectations of how the holiday season will play out can leave you feeling depressed. Expect the unexpected, particularly from the children, and particularly if your children and your spouse’s children don’t seem to care for one another that much.
- Expect everything to be much more complicated with a blended family. The average household seems to have a never-ending to-do list during the holidays which includes shopping, parties, travel to see extended families, decorating, attending school programs, planning menus, and buying gifts we can’t afford.
- Even if you are usually a stellar “planner,” be even more diligent about making plans during the holiday season. Try your best to get an early start coordinating schedules with your family members, your spouse’s family members and both sets of children’s other parent. Having a solid set of plans to refer to can make the season go more smoothly.
- Get together with your spouse and set a budget for gift-giving. This is particularly important for the children’s gifts. Perhaps your spouse traditionally does not spend much on Christmas gifts for the children while you go all out. You don’t want your children opening lots of expensive gifts while your spouse’s children have only a few small gifts to open. Make a compromise so that all the children have approximately the same level of gifts.
- Do your best to remain “connected” with all the children during the holiday season even though the days are hectic and you are stressed-out. Consider a special note in a lunchbox, or a Friday night family night with pizza and movies. Take the time away from your obligations to enjoy this time with all the children. If you are able, it can mean a lot to children if you and your spouse take each child, individually, either shopping, to a movie, to lunch, or to another activity he or she enjoys. This one-on-one time can create incredible holiday memories for children.
- Allow your children to enjoy the time they will spend with their other parent, or with the other parent’s family. When you say—with conviction—“I’m so happy you will be able to spend some time with your mom and your stepdad during Christmas—I’ll miss you, but I know you will have fun,” you are releasing them from guilt over how you will feel being without them during the holiday.
- Be sensitive to children’s feelings of loss and loyalty during the holidays. No matter whether the divorce happened years ago, or is fairly recent, children experience feelings of loss following a divorce. Children also feel the tug-of-war among those who want them close during the holidays. They may want to spend Christmas with mom, but feel they are being disloyal to dad if they do so. A little extra understanding and TLC can go a long way with children during this time.
- Try to incorporate other traditions into your celebration, while looking for ways to establish your own, new traditions as a blended family. If you and your children typically have a Christian celebration for Christmas but your spouse and his or her children are Jewish, you will likely have extra steps during the holiday season to honor both traditions. Making a new tradition for your blended family can help the children to feel as though they are, truly, a family.
- If you and your ex typically have a contentious relationship, the holidays can be even more difficult to get through. Be the bigger person, and ask your ex if the two of you can put aside your differences during the holidays for the sake of the children.
- Flexibility is the key in blended families, never more so than during the holidays. Accept that it is impossible to make everyone happy, then do your best to modify your own traditions in a way that will at least make everyone feel included in the celebration.
At the end of the day, your priority should be to ensure that the children have a meaningful holiday experience—that doesn’t mean their experience must be perfect or without a hitch, just that the holidays had at least one highlight which was significant to the child.
For extended families:
So, you are on the road with a van-full of kids, headed to see your extended family, your spouse’s extended family or both, during the Christmas holiday. You are barely out of the driveway before you hear your first “Are we there yet?” and despite your admonitions to the children to go before you left the house it is already time to make a pit stop. You are wondering whether you remembered everything, whether Aunt Ida is going to like the present you chose for her and whether Uncle Bill is going to cause his usual yearly ruckus by bringing up politics during Christmas dinner. You are probably, in equal measures, excited and apprehensive. After all, when you get together with extended family for Christmas, particularly when you rarely see them, there are a ton of expectations associated with the holiday. The following tips may make it easier to get through the holiday season with your extended family members:
- Do your best to play down the material aspect of the holiday season. Studies have shown that families who de-emphasize gifts, while emphasizing the togetherness factor have a much more satisfying holiday experience. Ask everyone to bring their favorite board games, and detach the kids from their phones long enough to play a rousing game of Twister or Trivial pursuit.
- Instead of leaving the bulk of the cooking to one person, spread the cooking tasks around. Whether each family brings a special dish or makes it after arriving at your destination, this can significantly reduce the stress for the person who is typically in charge of the entire meal.
- Be sensitive to the fact that there may be a house that is packed to the brim with visitors—people who typically do not live with one another but are now expected to get along in close quarters. When all the adults recognize every individual’s—particularly the adolescents in the family—need for a little space and privacy during the get-together, conflicts can be greatly reduced.
- If there are family members you typically have differences with, vow to set aside those differences during the holiday season. It is not mandatory that you express your political views or respond to a statement which is vastly different from you own beliefs.
- Don’t go into the get-together with unrealistic expectations. If great-aunt Jane asks you every single Christmas if you are ever going to get married, and your father comes off sounding like Archie Bunker, recognize that these behaviors will probably never change. These are people being themselves—but no differently than they have always been, year after year after year. Yes, you may want them to be different, but the likelihood of that is slim, so don’t go in expecting that everything will magically be different, better, this year.
- Vow not to take things so personally. Many of the people you will be spending time with may say things that hurt your feelings or make you angry. Consider, just for a moment, that while there may be a person here or there who is actually trying to get your goat, for the most part those who say outrageous things are not really trying to “get” you—they are just being themselves, for better or worse.
- Keep things in perspective. An overdone turkey, a teenager who demonstrates the maximum amount of sullenness, or a critical comment from your mother are not the end of the world. Teenagers have displayed sullen behavior for centuries, mothers really do want the best for their children, and when there is plenty of laughter and love in the room, nobody will care or remember that you had to cut off a few over-browned pieces of turkey.
So, whether you will be spending time with unpredictable or contentious relatives, dealing with the relative who never seems to contribute to the get-together or the grandparent who spoils your children rotten, or you are seriously considering wringing the neck of an ungrateful child, knowing your own limitations and setting healthy boundaries can ensure a successful, happy holiday season for you and your family.