This holiday season is upon us. Parents want help with what to do about all the stress that occurs with kids. There are holiday events and parties at the kids’ schools and at your work. The routine is disrupted. Kids are home more. Gifts need to be bought and wrapped. There are ‘family get-togethers’, to be planned and attended; food to be prepared and served. Travel plans add extra complications. But in addition to the stress from the extra hustle and bustle there are the stresses that occur from within us.
Amidst all the cheer lots of painful feelings can get stirred up, in children, and in parents. Managing the emotional distress is hard and can threaten to take the pleasure out of the holidays altogether. We usually can’t do that much about the external situation. But with reflection we have the chance to improve the internal one. Here are two reflective steps you can take, to avoid your Holiday Happiness from being ruined. (1) Reduce unrealistic expectations. (2) Don’t confuse gifts with love.
Reflect on the expectations you and your child have for the Holidays.
Expectations are a major source of painful emotions during the Holiday Season. Most people have some type of idealized vision about how the holiday should go. Parents may expect everyone to be happy, enjoying themselves, get along well and appreciate their gifts. Parents can actually believe that they can make their child feel completely happy and that their child will be grateful for all the gifts they receive. Children wish they could get all the things they want and believe that adults can read their minds. With all the build up to the holidays, kids develop almost magically thinking about how amazing the holiday will be.
It is part of our human nature to have these kinds of myths about how things should be. But the truth is these expectations are totally and completely unrealistic. No one’s holidays are like that! No one is always happy. No one’s family always gets along. No one is always grateful about the gifts they receive. We all get jealous or envious of what others have. We all get angry and cranky with each other. But unless you are aware of this, the ‘let down’ you will feel when reality kicks in can be overwhelmingly painful- like falling from a tall height.
Even in the best and most loving of households many of our cherished wishes, our ‘dreams’ for the holidays are often disappointed. We can’t change that reality. But we can change how we react to that reality, by using the reflective tool of acceptance. If parents can truly accept that Holidays can’t and don’t need to work out so smoothly and perfectly the Holidays can be less painful and stressful. Accept that sometimes your kids will be upset, will be disappointed, will be envious, will be cranky and may even make Grandma feel hurt or Uncle Jerry feel insulted; and that no amount of perfect parenting, or all the right gifts and activities can change that, because that is just how life is.
You still have to help your child cope better with their painful emotions such as disappointment, or jealousy and not allow them to be expressed in harmful or hurtful ways to others. But your whole level of pain and stress will be reduced if you recognize that children’s disappointment, unhappiness, jealousy and envy are all normal feelings, and that they can get heightened during the Holiday Season. You will be in less pain and also be more effective in helping your child. Remember if you can’t regulate your own painful emotions, it will be extra hard to help your child regulate theirs.
Reflect on whether you or your child confuse gift-giving with love
Another major source of painful feelings during this time of year are the deep longings for love, appreciation and recognition that get stirred up. These are normal feelings. But the trap can be when parents and kids confuse gift giving with emotional giving. Children often feel disappointed about a gift. But parents can misinterpret that as meaning that they were not a good enough parent because they did not make their child feel happy or feel loved enough. Frequently this is because the parent did not feel loved enough growing up and therefore confuses their own feelings with their child’s. I find often kids cope with the disappointment better than the adults do in these cases.
Parents are very prone to taking it too personally when a child is unhappy with a gift, or does not show enough appreciation for a gift. The parent takes it personally to mean the child does not appreciate, respect or love the parent. A child can be disappointed or even angry about a gift simply because they did not get what they want. They still love, appreciate, value, and respect the parent. However the parent’s misinterpretation of the child’s deeper feelings, can lead the parent to be overly critical or judgmental toward the child’s behavior.
There are situations in which children misinterpret that when they receive a gift they don’t like from their parents, that it means their parent doesn’t love them. Or can misinterpret that if their sibling gets a so-called ‘better’ gift, it means the parent loves that sibling more.
The painful emotions caused by misinterpretations can be reduced. Here the reflective tool is recognizing that our assumptions are not always correct. Being reflective enables us to know that we automatically make makes assumptions about what other people feel about us, based on how they act; but that those assumptions are not always accurate. We need to slow down. Take the time to consider if a misunderstanding has occurred and to clarify it whenever possible.
These reflective tools can turn a painful holiday into a happier one. A Reflective Parent embraces the situation as an opportunity for clarifying meanings, learning and developing better coping skills, rather than as a sign of something being wrong with their family, their child or with them as a parent.