There are so many wonderful reasons for families to gather during December: From religious holidays to school breaks, it’s a season when both young and old traditionally set aside time to celebrate together. For many of us, there are family dynamics that can put holiday harmony at risk; and when there are young children in the mix, we’re faced with how to best navigate these complexities while nurturing their development and fostering fond memories.
Childhood development experts talk a lot about the impact of adult modeling, and the lasting emotional impressions of early experiences. How can we make sure our family gatherings and holiday festivities will be positive for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers?
We’ve honed-in on three philosophies that will help you manage those typical holiday stressors, while supporting your child’s development: Managing expectations, modeling appropriate behavior, and remembering the importance of conversation. If you’re an educator, these are great tips to pass along to the families you serve!
Manage Expectations to Establish Family Traditions
Dawn Kurtz, Child360’s Chief Program Officer, shared that the most important thing we can look at this holiday season, and what will best support our children developmentally, is to have realistic expectations. “You’re bringing together a variety of perspectives, and it’s essential to bring realistic expectations into the mix—and especially about young children,” shared Kurtz.
“Babies and toddlers don’t know it’s a holiday,” she says. “They have routines and things they’re used to, so seeing a lot of family may be daunting – and they’re not ready for that.”
First, manage what is appropriate for your child. “You are your child’s first teacher, you will know what’s best for them,” Kurtz says.
Kurtz cautions this may mean setting unwelcome boundaries with other adults, i.e. managing their expectations of your child. However, keep in mind that when you advocate for interactions that are appropriate to your child’s developmental stage, you are setting everyone up for success.
While we all love the long-time family traditions your child may not be ready for, one way to help orient them is to start with low-key family-unit-only traditions – like decorating the house or baking a favorite recipe. As children age, families can layer larger gatherings and more challenging social situations, while reinforcing the familiar base. “Start to build those traditions, and every holiday will become a little more familiar. Ultimately, tradition can help your child create context about his or her family, their family dynamics, and even the family’s general feeling around the gathering you may be celebrating.”
You’re Modeling Appropriate Conduct for the Kids
Developmental psychologists agree that modeling behavior for children has long-lasting effects; during this holiday season, we encourage you to be especially keen to this philosophy.
“It’s important for adults to remember that kids are watching, and processing, your behavior: your body language and reactions,” Kurtz says. “The extent you can keep this in mind, and regulate your own reactions, will help the child regulate how they will process it.”
If a child sees their role model display anger, frustration, or negative emotions, they are more inclined to have a visceral reaction, Kurtz shared. “So as you manage your own behavior, you are actually managing your children’s experience.”
Find the Teachable Moment with Follow-up Conversations
What happens when, despite your best intentions, someone behaves badly? If a child becomes upset, overwhelmed, or hyper-emotional—first, it is best to remove them from the situation entirely and provide a safe space to recompose.
After the gathering has ended, parents should encourage a follow-up conversation to help process the situation. Give the child permission to vent their feelings, then discuss how the situation might have been better addressed – or avoided entirely.
Kurtz stresses this process is helpful even with very young children; while the conversation may be simpler, it will encourage their emotional development and support their growing language skills. With slightly older kids, parents can model self-reflection by examining their own negative interactions: “I could have handled that situation better.” This approach benefits both child and parent.
Whether it’s a holiday, or family gatherings in general, be encouraged that navigating through any of these dynamics helps your child learn social skills and social expectations, and how to interact with people from different generations. Kurtz reminded that from an early age, children are “learning respect and manners, and we’re teaching them how to hold different generations with high regard.” Learning to interact with family members of different generations, or those they don’t see very often, provides a learning platform that children can build upon when they’re interacting with adults outside their family.
By starting here, we can all make holiday harmony our newest – and longest – tradition during the holiday season.