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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Navigating the Holidays with Young Children

Navigating the Holidays with Young Children

The holidays are typically a time of great joy, but they can also come with challenges for you and your children due to increased activities, demands, and emotions running high. Here are a few research-based tips to help foster family togetherness, gratitude, and well-being during this hectic season.

1. Establish a few simple family rituals that everyone can participate in and commit to doing them every year. These needn’t be expensive and can include such things as:

  • Decorating the house festively, whether with a tree, wreaths, or decorative candles; making and choosing ornaments or stockings; constructing dreidels or Kwanzaa flags (these will depend on whether & what you’re celebrating).
  • Choosing and/or making a family holiday card and/or table placards for guests.
  • Making, a few “signature” family recipes for yourselves or others to enjoy.
  • Working on a few manageable home-made gifts (e.g., consult the web for instructions on making bath salts, hot chocolate mixes, “bread in a bottle”, bookmarks, and such). Be selective here so that you don’t overwhelm yourself or your child.
  • Outdoor activities that are available where you live, such as skating, sledding, hiking, or taking walks to look at neighborhood decorations with a hot beverage in hand.
  • Reading a favorite book or watching and discussing a favorite movie.

The key is to commit to doing these activities together. Research shows that rituals foster closeness and good health, particularly in times of stress, as is common during the holidays. Over time, predictability of rituals will help children to transition to the holidays, which can be trying due to changes in routine and the onset of strong emotions. Keep in mind that even happiness and excitement can be a source of dysregulation for kids.

2. Take the opportunity to foster gratitude in your children, particularly with regard to giving to others. This is most effective when your child can participate actively in the process (e.g., deciding to give to person or animal causes; helping people in the hospital or in a homeless shelter) and when it is concrete rather than abstract (i.e., giving something tangible such as food or a teddy bear in person, rather than sending a check). It is also helpful to use induction, or explanations, of why it’s important to give to others. Finally, pointing out to children that they are great helpers (rather than thanking them for helping) helps them to internalize this quality as a personal attribute of their own and will encourage them to want to engage in such behaviors independently in the future.

3. With all of the goodies that tempt us over the holidays, we tend to eat more and put on weight. You can model healthy eating behaviors by allowing your children to enjoy the special treats of the season, guilt-free, while encouraging them to practice healthy moderation. Discussion about choices (“Which one will you have right now? Which one do you want for later?”) rather than rigid rules (“No more!”) will help somewhat, but keep in mind that it’s ok to be more liberal in the context of recognizing this special time of year. To compensate for the extra calories, model active behavior by staying off the couch, putting away the gadgets, and heading outside (which can tie into your rituals, as noted above).

For all of the activities above, take advantage of teachable moments that encourage the development of cognitive and social skills. For example, making recipes involves using math -- do some fun drills or age- appropriate measuring demos with your child. Explain the quantities in the recipe as you make them. Work on color and shape naming when arranging or constructing decorations. To promote language skills, tell stories while you’re doing activities together.  Above all, have fun!

Dr. Janet Boseovski is an Associate Professor and Co-Director of the DUCK Lab (Development and Understanding of Children’s Knowledge) in the Psychology Department at UNCG. Located in the Eberhart Building, the DUCK Lab and Memory Development Lab (MDLaB: Memory Development Learning and Brain) are a non-profit research center dedicated to the study of children’s cognitive and social development.  We welcome parents and children to participate in our studies, all of which are presented as fun games for children. We provide free parking, treats, prizes, and coffee for parents, and we are available at your convenience. Please contact us at childdev@uncg.edu or 336-256-0048 for more information and also see previous GSOFamilies post (http://www.gsofamilies.com/2014/07/uncg-memory-development-lab-and-duck.html).

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