Parties, Gifts, and Manners: How to Manage Holiday Expectations with Kids

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I will never forget the Christmas Eve when I didn’t trust my gut. I thought my daughter seemed a little more than tired. I’m the “keep their vacation sleep schedule the same” mom, so my kids tend to be well-rested even during the holiday rush. That night, as we left for a family party, she looked overtired. I wrestled with the dilemma we all feel at times: Let them go to the party and have fun while meeting the expectations of other people or say no and stay home. Any other time, I would have said no. That night, I decided to go. By the time we finished dinner she had a raging fever and Christmas was a loss that year. Chances are she doesn’t really remember it, but I do. And I’ll never do that again.

The holiday season is fun and festive and full of wonder, and also completely over-stimulating and exhausting for most children. Yes, even the “big kids”.

The expectations placed on children during this whirlwind season are often fairly unreasonable, and that can result in huge meltdowns and holiday resentment on the part of the parents.

Holidays don’t have to end in tears, though. With a little preparation and a focus on attending to the basic needs of the kids throughout the season, the holiday season can actually be merry and bright. 

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Focus on sleep.

Your kids need sleep.

  • Toddlers and preschoolers: 12-14 hours, including naps.
  • School-age kids: 10-12 hours.
  • Tweens and teens: 9-11 hours.

When the party invitations come rolling in, they tend to include late nights. Don’t skimp on sleep during the holiday season. Your little ones need proper rest to recoup from the exciting and sometimes over-stimulating events they attend throughout the season.

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If you have a couple of nighttime parties that are “must attends” (for me these are usually family parties), pick and choose carefully. Spread them out and allow for extra downtime and rest in between.

Manage expectations about table manners.

While most school-age children can be expected to sit through a family meal, toddlers and preschoolers are not known for the ability to sit still through boring adult talk, particularly when bedtime is pushed to the limit.

  • Talk about table manners and expectations before the party. Sit next to your young child to whisper reminders and excuse her from the table when she finishes eating. Yes, some kids like to sit with the adults, but many don’t. Your child’s job is to eat dinner, talk with her neighbors, and sit appropriately.
  • Bring coloring books or another quiet activity that your child can do independently in close proximity to the table once she’s finished eating.
  • Be prepared to excuse yourself if it gets too late. One thing I’ve learned over and over again is that holiday meals are almost always later than my kids can handle. It’s okay to excuse your child from the table if your child can no longer handle the party. It’s also okay to excuse yourself to support your child.

Practice opening gifts in advance.

All kids can benefit from gift opening practice. The holidays are hard for kids because they feel like they have all eyes on them. Have you ever opened a bunch of gifts in front of a group of people expecting you to absolutely love every single gift? It’s a lot of pressure!

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Wrap a bunch of toys and clothes (definitely clothes) you already own and practice opening gifts! Cue your child to do the following:

  • Read the card first (help little ones read the card)
  • Say something positive (red is my favorite color!)
  • Make eye contact and say thank you before moving on

Try to remember that kids get very excited when they see a pile of gifts in front of them, and opening them one at a time and one-by-one is an unreasonable expectation for anyone under the age of seven. Consider allowing the little ones to open their gifts together and say their thank yous after they finish.

Gratitude.

Be sure to have your child thank the hosts and say goodbye before you leave the party. If gifts were opened, keep the cards with the gifts so your child can draw “thank you” pictures to mail to the gift givers after the holiday season.

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Parties, Gifts, and Manners: How to Manage Holiday Expectations with Kids

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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