Holidays and other gatherings can be a lot of fun — but they can also be chaotic and overstimulating for kids! Rather than punish your children for misbehavior, be thoughtful ahead of time about how to prepare them for success.
Whether your child loudly proclaims Gramma’s sweet potatoes are YUCKY!, gets out of control when opening presents, or shuts down and withdraws when talking with adults, make a thoughtful plan and weave in plenty of encouragement.
[To ease holiday mealtime stress, read 7 Practical Tips for Picky Eaters.]
With the three simple steps below, you can set your child up for success and create a truly enjoyable holiday gathering!
1. Zone in on the challenge.
At previous gatherings, how has your child struggled? Opening presents like the tazmanian devil? Hiding under the table? Eating every cookie in sight? What skill does your child need to develop to counteract their challenge area(s), and when have you seen them use that skill in the past? Start your conversation by referring to this past success.
Cheryl knew that her lively, distractible 7-year-old, Jared had a tendency to get wound-up when opening presents. She reminded Jared about other times he had expressed gratitude well in the past.
2. Plan for success.
How could you set your child up for success beforehand? A child that freaks out over the food at Christmas dinner needs a strategy of how to respond and what they can eat. An extremely timid child could bring a favorite “show and tell” item to start a conversation with other guests.
Jared and Cheryl made a simple plan to help him stay calm and make gift-opening more enjoyable for everyone. Cheryl smiled gently as she rehearsed the plan again with Jared just before the gathering: “Remember, it’s important to pay attention to keep your body calm. Each time you open a gift, stop and look at the person who gave it to you, and thank them. Then go on to the next gift. If you’re having a hard time I will sit next to you at first and hand you presents one at a time.”
3. Affirm the good stuff!
Guided by their plan, Jared sailed through family gift-opening and Cheryl affirmed his good effort.
After the fact, share an affirmation (or several!) that builds wisdom and positive identity, using the ABC format:
A – Action/Attitude: Describe the specific action/attitude to let kids know exactly what they did well, so they can more easily repeat it.
“I enjoyed watching you open gifts.” (Kids love to be noticed.) “You were really careful to stay calm and thank everyone before you went on to the next gift.”
B – Benefit/Blessing: Help them understand how their behavior benefits everyone involved to build wisdom and social awareness.
“That helped to keep all the other kids calm. Those who gave you gifts felt cared about, and that you appreciated their gift.”
C – Character: i.e. “What did it take to pull that success off?” Label the character required to build a positive identity, such as “I am a grateful, self-controlled kid”. This becomes the source of more behavior consistent with that identity.
“You really showed gratitude and self-control. Nice work!”
We know, we said three steps, but this part is important: Be prepared to repeat this process numerous times for each issue your child struggles with. Children need a lot of repetition to learn skills and build confidence. Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, says that “even when kids understand why something is wrong, they still aren’t more likely to do what’s right the next time.” He tells parents that “the key to behavior change is creating opportunities to practice good behavior and following up with praise. Once you get the behavior to happen five times and you enthusiastically praise it five times, you’ll probably begin to notice some progress.”
This holiday season, be proactive about helping your children plan effective strategies to behave appropriately at family gatherings. Not only will it help everyone have a better time, but it will give them gifts that will last far longer than any they’ve opened — the gifts of wisdom and social confidence.
Note: Sometimes Gramma, Grampa and aunts and uncles have lots of opinions about how you should deal with your kids when they struggle. If your biggest challenge is relatives who disapprove of your parenting, read how to give practical, grace-filled responses to family members.
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