Written by Laura Le
As fun as this time of year can be, changes in routine and expectations can exacerbate your child’s challenges. Many parents look at the holiday events on the calendar with dread because of the battles wrought in previous years. Other families resolve that this year will be different and hope that the same struggles do not reappear this holiday season. Here are some strategies for your family to use to ensure success in the coming weeks.
Set Expectations—for yourself and your child
A helpful approach for this time of year is progress rather than perfection. Expecting perfection from your child and yourself as a parent can lead to disappointment and frustration, especially if your child struggles with impulse control, managing emotions, or anxiety.
Consider how long the event is, the day and time, and where the event falls in your child’s usual routine. These factors can determine how long you should stay and also help predict what your child will struggle with so that you can generate possible solutions. Decide on behaviors that you consider non-negotiable and be willing to let some behaviors go—redirecting or stopping dangerous behavior is important, but ensuring that your child say please and thank you to every person at the party may not be worth the battle.
It is very important to communicate your expectations with your child. Preparing your child before a holiday party or a large family gathering can help him or her meet your expectations. A few days beforehand, find a time to discuss these expectations. Pick a time when you and your child are relaxed and free from distractions. Just after disciplining your child or in the middle of a video game raises the risk that your child will not hear you and may interpret your reminders as nagging. Keep the conversation short to help your child listen, focus, and retain the information you discuss.
Choose two or three things you want to help your child be successful at during the event then brainstorm with your child strategies that can help them in the moment. Try to focus on what you want your child to do rather than what not to do. If your child is having a hard time identifying a solution, you might share a personal experience you’ve had in a social situation and how you handled it.
Common goals many parents have for their children in social situations are greeting others appropriately, engaging in conversations and speaking with respect, and playing appropriately with other children.
Greeting others appropriately. Encourage your child to say “hello” to a certain number of people. Following the idea of progress rather than perfection, a child who struggles with anxiety or attention and impulse control may not be able to greet everyone at the gathering.
Engaging in conversation and speaking with respect. Brainstorm conversation starters. Most children will benefit from some preparation about what to say if a distant relative says, “How are you?” You might help your child think of a recent event that was exciting or a gift they received. For conversations with adults your child doesn’t know well, you might help them practice appropriate responses such as, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”
Playing appropriately with other children.
Some children struggle to initiate or join in play with other children, while some have difficulty once they begin playing. A child who struggles with anxiety may benefit from encouragement t
o pick one child at the party to play with. If necessary, you and your child might even identify a good play candidate when entering the event so that your child can more easily apply the strategy. Children who struggle to play appropriately with others can benefit from a catchphrase you and your child agree on when prepping for the event. A favorite at Art It Out is, “Go with the flow.”
Keeping the strategy short makes it easier for your child to remember and use. Some parents find it useful to create a nonverbal signal with their child that serves either as a reminder to use the strategy or as positive reinforcement when their child is using the strategy well. Once you have brainstormed solutions and chosen a strategy, practice with your child a few times before the event.
On the day of the event, do some behind-the-scenes preparation. Being tired and hungry are triggers for many people and cause them to struggle with their emotions and make poor choices. Even though your event might be a big dinner, making sure both you and your child have a snack before you arrive can ward off potential issues. Also, many children are able to focus and sit still for longer periods of time after they’ve had some exercise. Before a long holiday dinner, it might be helpful to go for a walk around the block.
Finally, on the way to the event or as you are arriving, briefly remind your child about your expectations and the strategies you selected together.
Be in the moment
Now that you did the hard work on the front end, assist you child in navigating the event if he or she needs any help. Offer specific praise when you catch your child using a strategy you discussed or handling a difficult situation. Be willing to overlook behaviors that did not meet your non-negotiable list, as long as your child is not in danger or overtly disrupting the event. Know when to leave and don’t feel embarrassed if your child begins to struggle.
After a little time has passed after the event, perhaps the next day, again offer praise for what your child did well. During this conversation, you might even point out positive choices that you didn’t talk about beforehand.
Making small yet meaningful changes is one way to make progress. This year, set your expectations with your child’s current ability to handle the event you are attending. Additionally, give yourself permission to leave early, when things are still going well, before fatigue has set in. And remember, progress rather than perfection.