'Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go'—how happily we have all sung those words as we excitedly planned our holiday trip. And how eagerly the loved ones at the other end of the line are waiting for us.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are probably the two holidays when we all feel absolutely compelled to visit some of our family—grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins. Yet during and after these visits, we not infrequently feel disappointed, let down, unhappy, or downright hostile! Although I can't quote the statistic, I know I have read that more family fights and even acts of violence occur on these occasions than at any other time of the year.
Why is that? How can it be that an occasion we so look forward to, spend considerable money on, and use up vacation time for can often be so disappointing? The answer is probably pretty simple: stress. Stress all around. 'You know my parents don't like your table manners, so please try to eat in a civilized manner,' says the wife. Counters the husband, 'You know my parents don't approve of your working and putting the kids in day care. Try to act like you know their birthdays and whether they've had their shots.' Wow! That sort of exchange ever happen in your family? Well, don't think for a minute your kids won't pick up on your stress and apprehensiveness. They will, and they'll do their part to make things go even worse. They'll whine and cry and embarrass you by repeatedly asking in front of your hosts, 'When are we going home?'
Apart from the interpersonal stress that can be a part of such visits, travel itself is stressful—and it seems to become more so all the time. We are not as comfortable about flying as we were before September 11, and we may never be relaxed about it again. Lines are long; flights seem to be canceled willy-nilly; and everyone is generally uptight. If we travel by car, weather can be unpredictable and severe. And change itself is never easy. If we go away from home, we miss our beds (especially our pillows), our local friends, the time schedule we are accustomed to, the food served us and the way it is prepared. Adults, who understand time sequences enough to realize old familiar routines will soon be resumed, can perhaps cope more easily than can young children.
I want to offer a few suggestions that may help your young children adapt to the changes brought about by holiday visits and thereby avoid some of the disappointment and unhappiness that all too often accompany such visits.
Rehearse and prepare. Even though you went to grandma's last summer, your 3-year-old may not remember it or her too well. Show pictures taken at that time and tell stories about the visit. Prepare them for the 'house rules.' 'You know that Uncle David's house is a lot bigger and fancier than ours, and you'll want to be very careful not to eat crackers on the sofa.' Or, conversely, 'Grandma's house isn't as big as ours, and not everybody will have a separate bed. You're going to get to sleep in a sleeping bag, and we'll take your pillow and your own blanket to have in it.' Alert your children to any health problems they might see and not understand. 'Grandpa has had what they call a stroke, and his left hand doesn't work just right. It is all right to look at it, but don't stare. Then when we're alone together, you can ask me questions about it. It's probably better not to ask him those questions.'
Preserve familiarity. Take along as many familiar and beloved objects as you can carry—favorite toys, books, special snacks, stuffed animals, pillows and blankets. (You must think I'm obsessed with pillows, but many people—children and adults—have difficulty sleeping on a strange pillow.) And don't forget to take all these treasures home with you when you leave.
Alert your hosts of special needs or problems. If there are any events that trigger upsets in your children, be sure to communicate those. When my children were young, they wanted to eat at the same time every day. If they had to wait 30 minutes, they began to squabble with one another, to interrupt any conversation I might be having with the other grown-ups by pulling at me and asking, 'When are we going to eat?' As my parents had never had this kind of rigidity about mealtimes, my mother would look askance at such behavior. So I learned to take along, or buy at the convenience store, a few cans of soup and granola bars that could either tide my kids over or else take care of their hunger altogether. Pets can also be a problem. After their children leave home, older people often become deeply attached to their pets. Little children from families without pets are sometimes afraid of dogs, especially big ones; or, just as problematic, the children will want to lavish the animals with 'affection' the animals simply won't tolerate. So books and stories to help prepare the children, and requests of your parents to honor the children's needs or fears, can help avoid problems.
Don't over-sell the visit. Don't promise too much. 'Oh, you're going to have the most wonderful time!' Chances are, they will indeed have a wonderful time. But if they are expecting too much, even a feast of experiences may not appear to be enough. And let them know you are going to want to do some talking just with the other grown-ups and that you expect them to be able to play by themselves some of the time.
Find moments to be alone with your children. During holiday visits, we always want to do our share of the cooking and the clean-up. You may find yourself getting more tired than at home, even if there are plenty of people to share the work. Both you and your children will need a few quiet moments—perhaps at bedtime—to share stories about the day, to read a book, sing a song together, reflect on what might be happening at home. And your parents will probably appreciate those moments for a bit of sharing on their own. Too much togetherness is toxic. These precious moments will help to keep things on an even keel for all the participants and help ensure that the holiday visit lives up to your expectations.
Oh, and by the way—Happy Holidays!
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.