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Solve Seasonal Challenges

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., offers advice on how to deal with 5 common quandaries that crop up during the holidays.

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Know how to respond when holidays bring out your child's worst behavior.
Know how to respond when holidays bring out your child's worst behavior.

Steeped in special traditions and family togetherness, the holidays offer wonderful opportunities for rekindling loving connections but also for arguments and disappointment. Keeping your expectations reasonable will help, so we've turned to Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., for a reality check.

My son gets so greedy!
My daughter seems cranky.
My in-laws buy gifts we don't approve of.
When can I expect my children to be polite about gifts they don't like?
I worry that I'll be disappointed by family issues during the season.

Q: My son gets so greedy at this time of year — all I ever hear is "I want, I want, I want!" What's the best way to respond?

In my view, TV advertising directed at kids is a major culprit. Even if your child watches only an hour a day (and many regularly spend much more time than that in front of the tube), he is exposed to an assault of tempting products and suggestions to ask you to buy them.

We really can't expect young children to be skeptical about the claims and promises of wonderful-looking toys set before them. Children accept pronouncements on the screen as facts. Since all of the tricks of the marketing and advertising trades are brought to bear on the effort to persuade, you are up against a mighty force.

Add to that the chatter in school, in the neighborhood, and wherever kids gather about what each one is getting for the holidays, and the appetite for acquiring is bound to expand. I don't think I would call it greediness, but rather a natural result of the kids suggestible natures. There is also the competitive spirit. "No one should be getting stuff that I can't have. It wouldn't be fair," your child might think.

I suggest the following for dealing with these comments and attitude:

  • Make a list: Ask your child to keep a running list of desirable gifts. Then on a designated day, have him pick 10 (or some other arbitrary number) of them to comprise his Official Holiday Wish List. You can also have him rank them in order of desirability but make it clear that no one gets everything on his list. You can make your own list and share it with your son. The idea is that we will all do our best to please each other by giving what loved ones really want.
  • Model generosity: In the holiday spirit, make a plan to do or give for others who are less fortunate: visit people in nursing homes, sing carols to those who are shut in because of illness, make cookies for a food pantry, buy toys (or donate gently used ones) to children in poverty, etc. Demonstrate that holiday time is a season for being kind and generous, not merely for being the recipients of others' kindness.
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Q: My 4-year-old daughter seems to be so cranky during the holiday season. Could it be the changes in routine?

Even the happiest of holiday seasons can be disruptive to family routines, and children may start to show signs of distress, particularly from overstimulation. Crankiness, irritability, and argumentativeness all come to mind as signs of fatigue, as does crying more often and more easily than is typical of your child.

If you are unusually busy with company and party preparation, your daughter may begin to feel starved for attention and show it. If you are tense yourself about how to get it all done, or from remembering past holidays when relatives did not get along, your child is likely to sense that tension.

So when you are tense and preoccupied, your child may become more demanding, and around and around we go. So sometimes, it is a good idea to take a deep breath, step back, and consider your priorities. Recognize that January will come and it will all be done. Stop and spend some one-on-one time with each child: read a story, take a walk, trim the tree, go to a holiday event for children, etc.

Any way you can, get a breath of fresh air, take time out to reconnect to your daughter. And scale your schedule down, allowing time to relax and get back to the routines for a bit. Stick to normal mealtimes and bedtimes as best you can.

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Q: I have a real problem with my in-laws. Every year, they buy our son and daughter toys that we don't approve of. How can we solve this diplomatically?

Well-meaning family members and friends may at times pick gifts that you feel are inappropriate. You may not approve of action toys or you may have an aversion to Barbie, for example. Your first strategy might be to head those unwanted gifts off at the pass by preparing a list of suggested gifts in advance. Most grandparents, aunts, and uncles are delighted to receive such a list and are grateful for very specific ideas about what to get and where to find it. (Think of the gratitude you feel toward a friend who has a bridal registry. It's so much easier than having to select a wedding gift in the dark.)

Still, you can't prevent some unacceptable gifts from crossing your threshold. Depending on the ages and "reasonableness" of your children, prepare them for the idea that unacceptable gifts will be returned or exchanged. Remember to coach them to say "Thank you" politely, no matter what they receive (see following question). It's tricky, but it can be done.

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Q: When can I expect my children to be polite about gifts they don't like? What's the best way to teach good manners when receiving a present?

The holiday season provides many opportunities to guide your children about manners. But a lot depends on their ages. You can't expect a 3 or 4 year old to wax poetic about a gift that is meaningless to her. A gentle reminder to say "Thank you" is best.

Kids of kindergarten age and older are quite astute about who is likely to give desirable vs. poor gifts. If you know that Aunt Mimi always gives absurd presents, remind your children that they might be unhappy upon unwrapping something like last year's gift — those ugly pink and purple socks. Teach them that it's important to say "Thank you" in spite of their disappointment. Explain the concept behind "Aunt Mimi means well."

Don't ask your children to lie and say, "Oh, it's just what I wanted!" if that is far from the truth. Again, an automatic thank you is enough to expect for any gift. You can also suggest some other lines such as "It was nice of you to think of me," or, "This is very generous."

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Q: I find myself dreading this season, worrying that I'll end up disappointed no matter what. My son's father and I are divorced. It's a big struggle to deal with everyone's competing interests — me, my ex, my parents and siblings, his parents, his new wife and her kids, etc.! Even though my ex and I get along pretty well, this is really tough on both me and my son. How can I make the holidays happier for all of us?

Holiday time can be especially trying for those who have suffered relatively recent losses. That includes the loss, or change, of family structure, or even a single parent's bringing a new special friend and perhaps his or her children along for special events. Children and adults alike may find changes especially painful at this time.

In your case, your son may be sad and angry because he wants everyone to be together. That's a common response. The best strategy is to try to work out a schedule, carefully and calmly, ahead of time. If both you and your ex-husband accept the division of your son's time, it will be easier for all concerned. Parents warring over who gets how much of the children's time can be very trying for all.

Even in families without the complication of divorce, warts and all seem to appear in bold relief at holiday events. Which side of the family gets to be with the children and grandchildren on which days is a sore subject in many cases. Try to have all these things worked out well in advance; so that when the big days arrive, there are few questions and fewer resentments lingering. Even so, old ill will seems magnified when those who can't stand to be in a room together are forced to be.

No family is without some strain or strife. That's why it is a mistake to over-idealize the season. It isn't purely joyous. Nothing in life can meet such an expectation. So avoid disappointment by facing facts. You can still look forward eagerly to happy times together, pleasant reunions, and renewals of shared pleasures and traditions. But don't anticipate the impossible, which includes hoping that your son will be 100 percent sweet, grateful, mannerly, or generous.

Be optimistic, but realistic. Don't expect everything, including your son, to be perfect. Much of the trouble that holidays evoke results from disappointments on the part of adults, who somehow forget from year to year that things are not going to go as smoothly as their child's shiny new skates will glide over a picture-perfect ice rink.

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