The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

It seems like the moment we clear the Thanksgiving table, we are catapulted into the highs and lows and overarching mania of the holiday season. There is too much to do and too little time, and so much anticipation coming at us from all sides. To help navigate us through the next few weeks, I asked licensed family therapist Vinay Gaglani to share with us her thoughts on how best to prepare for extended family visits over the holidays.

Under Pressure

A: It’s the holidays and pressure is on to be in a festive, good mood. How do we cope with all the extra work plus the expectation of mood effervescence?

V: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” croons Andy Williams. And he’s absolutely right. It can certainly be a very joyful time to celebrate family, friendship and faith of all kinds. Yet the inherent expectation for fun to be had by all can leave us parents feeling stressed out and frantic, with to-do lists and menu planning, seating arrangements and guest bedroom preparation. And, oftentimes, a lot of our hard work feels like it goes to waste as our children act out, have tantrums and whine like it’s a new hobby. How ever can we, parents and children alike, survive this long awaited season with even a smidgen of holiday spirit left?

As parents we can exchange time with our spouses or close friends to check in before, during and after the family visit. We can spend 15 minutes sharing our struggles, venting our frustrations and identifying what went well, while our partner listens, and then we can return the favor by offering listening time. Author Kristen Volk of Hand in Hand Parenting shares the benefits of regularly exchanging listening time with a specific listening partner, and says this of the practice: “Building a Listening Partnership, an exchange of listening support between adults, allows us an outlet for our numerous and mixed feelings so they don’t infect the time we have with our children. Building resource within ourselves through the caring attention of another adult provides the connection we need to think well, be more effective as mothers and fathers, and unleash our creativity and intelligence.”

If we can find a safe space to put our feelings, either through such a listening exchange or by writing them out to lessen the burden of the emotional loads we carry, we can give ourselves a better chance of experiencing the joy of the season and sharing it with those we love.

A: But, even if we do have this practice in place beforehand, how do we maintain it if and when we have friends and family staying with us over the holidays?

V: Yes, when we have visitors staying with us, regardless of how beloved, it disturbs the equilibrium: our routines are thrown off, everyones bedtimes go awry. Visitors mean more people in the home, more bathroom juggling, and less opportunity to find a quiet corner to collect yourself in moments of extra (even happy) chaos. So, what to do?

As much as possible, assign a specific space, such as the master bedroom, as a quiet space. This allows us and our children to have one dependable place in which to decompress, rejuvenate and get some “just us” snuggle time. It may help to have a few of your kiddos’ quiet games, stuffed animals and art supplies stored in an easily accessible location in this room, so they can help themselves to self-soothing activities when they need a little time (perhaps even one of those adult coloring books kept in this stash can give you both some much needed creative time together to reconnect.)

Time, Time, Time

A: Ok, but what about time constraints? We have so much more to juggle more during this time than just your children and spouse/ partner?

V: Visitors bring with them their own needs, regardless of how kindly they are expressed. We may expect ourselves to anticipate all of these, and there may be an unspoken expectation that we do so, to some extent at least. This is definitely the case in some cultures more so than others.

Setting clear expectations for communicating needs at the beginning of the visit, as well as showing guests where they can help themselves to basics like extra towels, toothpaste and TP, can allow for smoother requests and greater independence.

Another helpful cue we can take from our elementary school days and put back into practice is writing up a basic daily rhythm and keeping it stuck on the fridge for all to see can give guests and your children alike plenty of information about what to expect over the course of the day. Setting up a written schedule that you share with everyone can help smooth over changes in guests and kids schedule over the holiday, it can even silently act as a solicitor of help!

If help is offered by a guest, accept it! If, for example, Grandma wants to read the bedtime story to the kids and you follow up after with final snuggles and tuck in, so much the better for all involved… you get some downtime with adults while your kiddos get some special bonding time with Grandma.

And the Weird Behavior Award Goes to…

A: So even if you are lucky enough to have helpful guests, what do you suggest to do about over-excited children? Kids get so over-excited that they sometimes (oftentimes) engage in weird attention-seeking behaviors…

V: Oftentimes, our children act out in both comical and frustrating ways in the presence of guests or family. Or all of a sudden they become painfully shy wallflowers. The need to show and tell, share and entertain, or alternatively withdraw and hide, can be an overwhelming force in our little ones.  Even as we try to bring sense to these often nonsensical behaviors, our children feel preoccupation and our diminished availability as we try to juggle meeting everyone’s needs. Inevitably, their neediness increases in an inversely proportional relationship to our business that would wow mathematicians and physicists alike with its predictability! The expression of this neediness occurs in the form of tantrums, aggressive behaviors, whining, far greater than the usual day-to-day comportment. How do we deal with this without losing our marbles?

Again, we can build-in special one-on-one time with each child. Even if just for 10 minutes each morning for the duration of the visit, it is important they receive our undivided attention. Just those 10 minutes can set a positive tone for the day by filling their emotional tanks.

Another thing we can do even before guests set foot into our homes is this, we can decide upon a special code word with our kids, for them to use when they need some immediate attention or one-on-one time with a parent once guests arrive. When we hear the code word, we honor the request with a quick hug, a loving conversation to check in, or five minutes of roughhousing. In doing so, our children are reminded of our connection to them, their hearts are filled, and their neediness has a chance to subside, which hopefully restores some sanity!

Additionally, in preparation for visitors, we can engage our children in contributing to the family efforts to make the visit special by drawing a welcoming picture of the guest room, or selecting flowers for the dinner table, some kind gesture of hospitality that comes specifically from them. Upon arrival, and periodically throughout their visit, our children can be given special jobs to check in with our family guests, for example, seeing if they have enough towels, or what might they want for breakfast. This can help to channel their energy in positive, goal-directed ways.

We can further involve our children by asking them to select one place special to them that they would like to take visiting family members, so as to share a little about themselves. Perhaps they want to take family members on a guided tour of their neighborhood or school grounds, or have time with one specific family member, such as a special walk with Grandpa one day, and with Auntie another day.

Lastly, that schedule that you posted on the fridge, keep it a little loose, and factor in downtime for reading and snuggles midway through the day. This allows for everyone to catch their breath. However, even if the schedule is loose, maintaining a regular bedtime, even if later than usual, is key. A regular bedtime gives the security of a routine and helps our kiddos get sufficient rest and allows them to feel some sense of predictability through connection to a daily rhythm. The regularity of an official bedtime will help their little body clocks know to expect rest, and not be thrown off anew each night.

Trigger Happy

A: Invariably, old triggers come up when family and friends visit. How do you keep your more negative feelings and family tensions away from the children so as not to perturb them, sway them to one side or another, or flat out ruin their holiday?

V: As parents we are used to anticipating and meeting the needs of our family members, the ones with whom we share space each day.  However, with extended family visiting, the possible existence of tumultuous family histories may mean that we are caught off guard. This can happen even when we thought we knew about meeting our spouse’s/ partner’s needs (or them meeting ours), the relationship can undergo a sudden and unexpected change, through the influence of an outside catalyst. Either parent may be triggered by interactions with family members that may echo challenging family dynamics from past points in our lives. Often though, we have an idea of what might be triggering beforehand and therefore we can do a little prep work.

We can address our predicted anxieties about how family tensions may flare by talking about them with our partner, or another trusted adult, or if everyone is in their own silo of anxiety, we can simply write them out. If we expect feelings to be rankled during a visit, we might prepare by lining up a supportive friend to whom we can shoot a quick SOS text. That way you know someone is on your side! Planning ahead in this way can alleviate the possibility that we might inadvertently express our feelings through irritability and conflict around tender little ears.

Code Red

As mentioned earlier, agreeing upon a code word between you and your spouse/ partner can signal either’s need to take a quick “time out” to calm down before continuing on. Allowing space for these mini adult “time-outs” means that at the end of the day, when you are finally sinking into your bed, exhausted, you will have a time for reconnection rather than for conflict or overflowing resentment that has built up throughout the day. After all, you are a team.

Should the worst occur and there is an angry exchange of words between spouses or other family members in front of the children, or residual anger not witnessed by children spills over into time with children, an age appropriate acknowledgement of the feelings and a plan for resolution can be reassuring to the kiddos. For example, “I’m crying because I’m sad. Aunt Kate and I had a disagreement and my feelings were hurt, much like when you and your sister fight. Once I’m feeling a little better, I will go and figure things out with Aunt Kate, and we will be friends again, just like you and your sister make up.” We are only human, a little acknowledgement of perfectly normal feelings goes a long way.

A: What about families that are divorced? What can we do to help kids who have to deal with the complications of two sets of families?

V: Divorce adds a unique level of stress to family dynamics during the holidays. There may be outright conflict or simmering resentment between former spouses that needs to be put aside, or vented elsewhere out of earshot of the children. There may also be strong opinions by family members of one parent, about the other parent, that they feel the need to share.

Assuming that the divorced parties are on speaking terms, parents can plan well ahead of time when the children will spend time with each parent over the holiday season, and convey this in a calm tone and in matter of fact terms to the shared children. This can help the kids involved develop an understanding and sense of preparedness for what will occur, without needing to feel torn or awkwardly between parents. Marking the time on a calendar allows children to see for themselves when they will see each parent, and adding details of any visiting family can help children feel excited about that time.

If one parent is physically unavailable during the holiday period, setting up regular FaceTime/Skype or phonecalls with that parent is an important step in helping children feel connected to both parents during this time. Remember that they will hear about family gatherings from their friends living in one home, and may have anxieties about seeing both parents, so this kind of preparation, even going as far as to mark these scheduled cyber/phone visits with the other parent on a calendar they can see, allows them to feel reassured that their connection with the other parent is valued.

The last but quite possibly the most important thing to remember is to share with family members BEFORE the visit, and away from the children (with the aforementioned tender little ears), the expectation that there is to be NO negative talk about the other parent while the children are present. This is an essential preparatory step to help children feel positive about being in both parents’ homes.

A: With all of these “to-do’s” in preparation for the holidays to run smoothly, do you think we can we still look forward to this time of year?

V: Absolutely and without a doubt!

If we remember that it is our time to enjoy the holiday season as well as for those family members visiting us, we can keep our expectations of ourselves and our children reasonable.

If we remember that fresh and new ideas can exist happily alongside time-honored traditions our visiting family members expect, we can create space for our own creative touches, and add to our own joy and merriment amidst the family visit.

And lastly, if we remember that normalcy will return before long, we can plan a wonderfully cozy pajama-and- movie day for ourselves, complete with fireplace s’mores and popcorn, or a “just us” dance party, once our guests are homeward bound and celebrate the holidays just within the immediate family.

A: That is something to truly celebrate! As always, thank you for your wisdom Vinay!


Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and tea!

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