It’s that time of year to pull on the extra cozy sweater, go wide-eyed at the season’s first snowfall and perhaps start dreading all the impending family time with folks we have successfully avoided since this time last year.

Not to sound Scrooge-like, but let’s be honest: Most everyone has a few people or situations they’d rather avoid over the holidays. It’s important for parents to remember their children can feel the same.

Among the uncomfortable situations are countless conversations with distant (or not) relatives who may all ask the same dull or awkward questions (how is school? how are your grades? what do you want to be when you grow up? do you have a summer job yet?). There’s the expectation to play well with cousins regardless of personalities and interests; and there’s the inevitable overload of activities, family cattle calls and sugar, exhausting everyone.

How is a 9-year-old to survive all this without a gigantic meltdown?

Identify and Manage Emotions

One part of childhood is learning to identify and manage emotions. A bad day gets better when kids can grasp and even articulate that they’re frustrated or worried or embarrassed.

Simply putting an accurate label on what they’re experiencing provides a great deal of comfort. Parents can help kids build this skill all year by saying, “So you are really frustrated,” when their child is stuck on a math problem. Then, when they’ve had to chat with five adults in a row, the child might be better equipped to understand that they are irritated or annoyed.

Have a Plan in the Back Pocket

With all of this mind, develop a plan with your kids for what they should do if they’re upset by someone. Therapists commonly develop a safety or crisis plan with clients of all ages. It includes a list of people to call when upset, strategies to distract or calm oneself, and reminders of appropriate behaviors to try.

Everyone could benefit from a plan like this, but perhaps with a better name. It could be the “Don’t Loose It” plan or whatever clever title your child chooses. The key to making a plan like this work is practice. Once someone is approaching meltdown mode, it is too late to say, “Remember your plan!” if they haven’t memorized it.

Share Realistic Expectations

If there are particular relatives that you know are challenging for your children to deal with, talk with them about some realistic expectations for behavior during family events.

Don’t criticize or shame your children for not liking all their relatives simply because you are worried about presenting a well-behaved kid. Talk about how Grandma loves them so much and that getting to learn about their life is a big deal for her. The goal here isn’t to instill guilt, but to help your children see the bigger picture and beyond themselves, which is not a skill that comes easy.

Perhaps give your kiddos a few suggestions for conversation. Remind them of the great field trip they took to the zoo, or encourage them to ask older relatives what they were doing at their age.

Encourage the Best Habits

Another strategy to consider is incentivizing your children to show extra good manners. The key is how to do it.

Some parents are horrified at the thought of bribing children for good behavior. This therapist is not. A big part of childhood is developing good habits. If promising a special treat gives kids the motivation they need to power through a tough afternoon, then go for it. The internal payoff for successfully managing a difficult situation is powerful.

When trying this, divide the day into manageable chunks. One idea is to that for every hour of good behavior, kids earn an extra five minutes of video games or a dollar toward something you would probably be buying for them anyway.

If certain relatives are excessively obnoxious, rude, or even frightening, there is no reason to subject your child to more than a few moments of pleasantries with you close at hand.

We all want our holidays to be warm, loving, and memorable. There is no reason they can’t be. Setting realistic expectations and planning for difficult moments doesn’t detract from the season. In fact, it goes a long way toward ensuring pleasant, happy traditions that can be looked forward to year after year.

Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.

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