By Elizabeth Pennington, MA
Just when you think you have your kids on track and adjusted to the routine of school, your little train gets hit with the ferocious holiday storms! Often, these storms hit unexpectedly. We assume these days are meant to be “better” than the average, but find that they are actually more challenging. When storms hit they result in more disastrous outcomes when we have no warning and don’t have the opportunity to prepare for them in advance. With the holidays coming I hope to bring to mind some of the challenges parents can expect and provide some tools for preparing for the storms and keeping the holiday train on track.
Some of the challenges the holidays bring are within your control to change, some you can influence, and others you can simply be better prepared to accept and move through.
- Travel: Spending hours seated in a car or plane can be challenging for kids. Many of them don’t have the executive functioning to plan ahead and conceptualize the time. Parents have high hopes for kids to enjoy travel but often don’t equip them with the necessary tools. Travel time is prime time for parents to be the regulating influence for their kids. Think about the steps ahead and prepare your kids. Remove any uncertainty about what is ahead. Predict potential triggers that you might encounter. Be attuned to your child and step in to address their needs before they ask. Equip yourself with the tools you will need to complete the journey; food, drinks, distractions, calming items, and most importantly- an expectation that travel is hard. Give travel time the same attention you give a difficult task at work. Remove distractions or hopes for your own entertainment. Plan for this time to be intense; with the resulting connection with your child even more intense.
- Change in Routine: The most obvious change is the change in routine. Routine brings a sense of felt safety. Even good changes can dissregulate both parent and child; sleeping late, flexible meal times, more time to relax, are all things parents look forward to. Unfortunately, this flexibility leaves room for uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear. Fear is the underlying source of most storms. If possible, move the start of your day to a comfortable hour but maintain the typical spacing of food, drink, and sleep. Avoid extended periods of unscheduled time. Even if the goal is to rest, plan for rest. Plan for what the kids will experience as rest and set yourself up for enjoying your time off with the kids.
- Parent Stress: Children are so intuitive, they feel what we feel! If parents are stressed kids will join them. If parents are the anchor of peace in the home, children will find security. Identify where you experience stress during the holidays. Recognize that sources of stress are often disguised by less intimidating covers. With each area that you identify, ask yourself, “What am I most afraid of?” Choosing to face your stressors head on is a preventative tool that will help smooth the holiday path ahead.
- Family Approval: Holidays hopefully mean more time with family. All types of relational issues can add stress to family encounters, but a common one is the lack of family approval. For parents following a TBRI model, their parenting may look very different from everyone else at the family meal. It is natural to seek approval and even hope for encouragement from parents and siblings as you are working so hard to do what you believe is best for your children. You know your family and you can choose the option that is most likely to be beneficial for you and your family. Sometimes family members just need education. Explaining your philosophy and why you do what you do is enough. Specifically, explaining the balance between structure and nurture and your plan to build on your relationship with your child, raising the bar as success is experienced, helps relieve fears of passivity and a trajectory of permissiveness. For others, you need to use the tool of adjusting expectations and lowering the bar. You need your family support but perhaps they can’t offer you that at this time. How can you adjust your bar of expectations to reflect the reality of your family? You can also address your own fears before walking through family gatherings. Express to someone you trust how you anticipate your family will respond. Role play exactly what you will say to yourself and how you will respond to your family. Stick to the script and don’t allow the approval of others to derail your holiday train.
- Excitement: Is excitement fun for your family? Your holiday train is winding up a mountain of excitement that often leads to a fast flight down the other side. Adrenaline spikes and our brains go into overdrive, trying to put out the flames of excitement. As much as possible, set a slow steady pace. Remember that anticipation is linked to uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear, which leads to the storms that crash against your little train. Set the course going up and brace for the race back down.
So, as you guide your holiday train forward: If your train crashes, remember you still have two more tools. And these are the most powerful, brain changing tools in your belt; repair and redo. Rupture and repair is how muscle is grown and how relationships are strengthened. The power of teaching through example includes teaching through mistakes. Analyze your crash scene. Pull out the CSI box and replay the events leading up to the crash. Determine what could have gone differently. Point out these errors to your kids and talk about what you would like to do next time. Apologize when necessary and finish with a beautiful redo. There is hope in a redo; knowing that a crash doesn’t have to be fatal. You can’t go back in time but you can get back on track and do the next right thing.