- This means looking at the situation coming up, and identifying those aspects you can have control over. You may not be able to make a stressful event go away, but perhaps you have control over when it starts, how long it lasts, and what other people’s expectations of you may be. For example, there may be a company party that you are expected to bring the whole family to attend. You can’t skip it, but you might be able to bring two cars to allow part of the family to leave early or come late (assuming of course that there will be two adults to share the load at this event), bring along a quiet game to retire with to the back room, let the host know that probably an hour is the most your 10-year-old can tolerate, etc.
- You can also look a little wider, and make plans to have less stressful times bookending the “target”event. You might skip out on a regular weekly happening in order to “leave room” for the difficult event. If your child is a physical kid, maybe scheduling an extra exercise time right before the event would be a good choice. The goal here is to do everything in your power to set the child up to be entering the situation with resources, and paring the situation down as much as possible to reduce the likelihood that those resources will be overwhelmed. The more creative you can be about strategically positioning yourself and your child, the better your outcome will be.
P is for “Plan and Practice”
- Having tweaked the bits that are tweakable, you can now start to build a plan, together with your child. This is the place to give them a detailed picture of what might happen, along with any possible variations you can come up with. This is a great time to play the “How many different outcomes”game — take turns imagining all the different ways this event could unfold, including the ones that are likely to be problematic. Aunt Janey hugs too much? Cousin Elmer follows you around the whole time? Granny insists that everyone clean their plate? Uncle Rob grills you with questions to see how you are doing in school? What are some things you can do?
- Having identified some of the challenges, practice practice practice. Depending on your kids’ age(s), this can be in the form of conversation, role play, puppets and dollies acting things out, or just the traditional conversation on the way to grandma’s house:
You: Ok, kids — do you remember what to do when you open a present? Them: (rolling eyes, sounding like a robot) Yes, mom, I say thank you….
S is for “Support and Scaffold”
- So now you are actually in the situation, and your puggle is struggling. This stage is the hardest for parents, I think, because this is the place where you have to ignore those watching eyes and judging minds, and do what is right for your kid. This is not the time to go on auto-pilot because you are at a family gathering and really want to connect with your sister whom you haven’t seen in a year (no really, I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work). This is also not the time to test out your child’s independence skills. Recognize how difficult this is for your child, and how hard they are working to keep it together, and do everything you can to help them be successful. They may need hands-on guidance, they may need you to broker breaks from the event, they may need you to run interference with Uncle Rob, or they may need to eat before dinner is served (you of course brought snacks, right?).
- Bolster yourself through this stage with a mantra like “I’m here as a parent” or “Junior is doing the best they can at this moment”. It can also be helpful in this stage if you enlisted the support of your spouse or other helpful person, who can remind you that you are doing a great job — scaffolding isn’t just for the kid!
E is for “Examine the Evidence”
- When the dust settles and it’s all over, sit down with your child and go over the event. Be sure to wait until any recovery, or even a night’s sleep, has had time to do its wonders. Then evaluate what worked, what didn’t and what to try differently the next time. Be sure to find a way to focus on what DID go right (to counter the inevitable human habit of discounting the positive). Doing this collaboratively may give you an interesting window into your child’s experience as well — their “best and worst moments” might be different from yours.
- Having done the last step, you are now better positioned to set up a positive experience the next time an event comes around.
In spite of how complicated the holidays can be, I hope this process will give you some ideas about how to weather the storm of expectation and challenge of the upcoming season, and leave you some space for joy, peace and renewal.