Holiday Ceasefire: How to Manage Family and Behavior Problems Amidst Holiday Stress
As parents it's easy to focus on the kids and lose sight of ourselves and our needs as adults at this time of year. So, when we look at how to manage family and behavior problems during the holidays, we need to look at the effect the season has on us and on our kids.
Parents have to keep in mind that their resources-both emotional and financial-are under a lot of stress at this time of year. Many emotional demands are placed upon you, and there's very little outlet to talk about your stress as a parent because everyone's acting so "happy." Parents can often confuse excitement with happiness. The holidays are an exciting time. But they're not happy times for many people. The truth is, the holidays are a lot of work--primarily done by parents. We tend to feel our economic deficits more critically at this time. When you feel like you can't afford to get your kid the next cool, hip thing, you feel like you're not taking care of your family.
Let's look at how the holidays affect children. It's important to note that there is a subset of kids who actually do better over the holidays because the demands to function are not placed on them. For instance, there's no homework to do, so Johnny acts better around the house. There are no school behavior problems to trigger frustration, so he's more cooperative. So, unfortunately, it's not that a miracle has occurred with your kid's behavior over holiday break. It's the result of having fewer behavioral triggers. But it does show you that your child has the ability to behave appropriately. You can look at it as a strength that he does indeed possess.
For most other kids with behavioral issues, the higher levels of excitement or anxiety in the home at this time of year can lead to lower impulse control. Kids have less structure to contain their excitement and emotions. This creates two things. One is that you will see your child acting out more. Two is that the meltdowns you see will be more frequent and more intense.
Again, we want consequences to be learning experiences. A consequence that doesn't fit the crime will just seem meaningless to your child, and won't get you the desired result. Remember, you don't want to be so punitive that your child simply gives up. That will never translate to better behavior.
Holiday spending tips for you and your ex-spouse. Knowing when to let go on spending is particularly important for divorced families. You have two scenarios. The first is where the parents are still very antagonistic about each other. I've seen endless deep pockets competition in these families that is completely ineffective. If your relationship with your ex-spouse is strained, don't compete with her by buying too many Christmas gifts for the kids, and don't buy more than you can afford.
More advice for divorced parents with strained relationships: have a rule that says, the toys that the other parent buys stay at their home. So you play with that at daddy's house, but not here. Keep it simple. Don't justify it.
If you are able to communicate with your ex-spouse, agree on the amount of money that you're both going to spend on gifts. If you are going to work together for the good of your kids, you should decide together beforehand how much money you're going spend on gifts and keep to that figure.
Put a moratorium on negative talk about your ex-spouse at the holidays and always. Call a permanent ceasefire when it comes to negative talk about the ex. If you've been doing it, start now at the holidays and stay with it every day. Decide you're not going to talk about your ex in a negative light. The same goes for the kids and for your own extended family. If your kids have something to say about daddy, say, "Why don't you talk to daddy about that when you're at his house?" Very simple. You don't have to justify it. You're not the child's confidante. All you have to do is state your position and stick to it. You will be surprised at how this cuts the day-to-day tension in your home.
Blended family? Maturity first. In blended families you have the problem of having three sets of parents involved. You and your spouse. His ex and her spouse. Your ex and his spouse. It's very complicated, and adults have to try to be especially mature about it. Let's be clear. If the adults can't behave maturely and responsibly, don't be surprised if the kids don't behave maturely and responsibly. And don't be surprised when you have an unhappy holiday. I've always believed that the real satisfaction that adults get out of Christmas is by handling it well for their children. Make it a priority to communicate with your spouse's ex about the kids without animosity. Who knows? Maybe it will become a habit and things will improve.
Let the kids who live with you open their gifts first. One of the biggest problems for blended families is when do you open presents? The kids who live with the family are there on Christmas morning. But other kids are coming at two o'clock in the afternoon. What do you do? In some families they open up some presents that morning and then wait till the other kids get there to open the rest. I believe that the kids who live there should open their presents that morning, and that's your family Christmas. The important thing is not when you open the gifts between sets of kids. It's that you keep the gifts even and don't overspend on one kid or one set of kids. Kids may look at what you've bought for them and feel like things aren't even anyway. But what they're doing is transferring some other feeling onto the holiday. If they have a perception that things aren't equal between sets of kids in a blended family generally, they're going to perceive Christmas as not being equal. This perception isn't a holiday issue. It's something you need to deal with on an ongoing basis with that child.
by James Lehman, MSW