We’re headed into one of the most stressful times of the year for blended and foster families. Winter holidays can be a constant reminder for our kids that their world is off-kilter and different from what they want it to be. There’s nothing we can do to change our kids’ perception of the holidays, but we can take steps to lower family stress. The best first step is to manage our own expectations. If we can lower our own stress, then we are much more likely to be able to help the rest of our family navigate these high-stress times. The following principles may help us avoid the frustration of unmet expectations.
We Won’t Be Perfect, but OK is Still Good
No one is perfect, which means that no family is perfect. So, our family get-togethers won’t be perfect, either. Rather than getting upset about mishaps, learn to find ways to enjoy the holidays anyway. As the ending of the movie A Christmas Story illustrates, even a seeming disaster can turn into a priceless family memory.
Our kids will take their cues from us. We have to show them how to be resilient and find the positive corners in less-than-perfect days. So expect minor disasters and plan ahead to keep those mistakes from overwhelming the important parts of building family relationships.
Plan Ahead for Our Kids to Melt Down
Don’t be surprised if your kids melt down or act out, usually at the most inopportune times. If they are new to the family or meeting people they don’t know well at family events, then they certainly will be feeling some level of stress and anxiety. That anxiety can overwhelm their coping skills. Even good kinds of excitement can lower our kids’ impulse control.
So expect disaster and plan ahead. If your kids are new to the family, try to limit how many new people they have to be polite to. If you still want to have large family get-togethers, try to arrange a safe space for your child to retreat to. I always found, for example, that it worked best to invite family to my house so that my kids could go to their rooms whenever the crowds got overwhelming. If that plan won’t work for your family, let your kids take tablets or music and earphones so they can virtually retreat and screen out the crowd. Don’t ask them to live up to anyone else’s expectations of these events.
Also, consider adding more structure to reassure them. The changed schedule of holidays can be disorienting and add to their stress level. You may need to add nurture and structure so that your kids can feel more grounded.
The more you can plan ahead, the less frustrated you will feel if (and probably when) your kids act out. Understand where they are coming from and have a contingency plan in place. The more you can control your expectations, the easier your family will get through the meltdowns.
Don’t Expect Your Kids to Treat You Like Family
We cannot escape the fact that, from our kids’ perspectives, we are not the people who are supposed to be in their lives. We may see a particularly strong reaction during the holidays. Our kids will be conflicted and will have divided loyalties. They may feel the need to demonstrate their loyalty to their biological parents or we may be the only safe place for them to vent. Either reason can prompt them to take their anger out on us. Even in a best case scenario, they may be simply polite and distant.
Whichever response we get, don’t take it personally. This reaction is not about you; it’s just how kids are trying to cope with the disconnect in their lives. Give your kids space for these conflicting emotions. More important, let them know that it’s OK if they need to keep you at a distance. Don’t make the holidays a loyalty contest. If you do, you will lose. More important, it will harm your relationship with your kids.
Take Time for Yourself
Holidays will be an important time to practice self-care. The laws of physics apply to parents, too, and we cannot be all things to all people. So don’t expect to be a superhero during the holidays. Set boundaries and set aside some time for yourself. Don’t skimp on sleep or exercise, and give yourself permission to take time for a book, a massage, a movie, or whatever recharges your batteries. You will need a full battery to get your family through the holidays.
Find the Bright Side
Finally, try to find humor in disaster. Not only will it help your outlook, but you’ll have physical benefits. Laughter can decrease cortisol, a hormone that is part of our body’s response to stress. Laughter also helps us keep an optimistic attitude. Make a promise to yourself to look for humor in a situation, no matter how many hidden corners you have to look through.
Many of us will be walking through a minefield for the next couple of months. The odds are that we’ll stumble into one explosion or another. The best way to handle that stress is to start with our own expectations. Once we have that foundation, we can help our kids find their way through the same minefields.