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Holidays Without Tears
by Dr. Laura Markham

Disrupted schedules, traveling with little ones, the crash and burn from all the excitement -- Holidays can easily be a recipe for tears and tantrums. How can parents manage life in December to maximize the joy and minimize the tears? Here, are top ten tips for creating a season of meaning and wonderful memories for yourself and your kids.

1. Fill kidsí real needs instead of promoting bottomless greed.
Most children experience the holidays as a time to create lists of all the material goods they covet, and toy companies spend fortunes on TV ads designed to induce cravings for more, more, more in our children. Limit TV exposure, hide the toy catalogs, and discourage the list-making. Instead ask your kids to sift through their desires and tell you one or two presents they really want that are within your means, one "together" present (such as your taking them ice skating or playing their favorite board game), and one present that it would make them happy to give to someone else ("Should we assemble a kit of your old dress-up clothes for your cousin? Fill kidsí gift stockings for a family shelter?") Use family dinner discussions to refocus everyone on the true meaning of your December holiday. Instead of excessive presents Ė which always leave kids feeling unfulfilled -- fill your childrenís deep longings with family connection and giving, and with traditions that leave them feeling good inside.

2. Keep to your usual schedule as much as possible.
Give kids plenty of warning about travel and upcoming events so they feel less pushed around and taken by surprise. Kids thrive on predictable routines and feeling at home. Theyíre stressed by unfamiliar events and what feels to them like chaotic unpredictability. At the beginning of the holidays, you might use a calendar to show them what will happen each day. ("Then the day before Christmas we leave for Grandmaís, where youíll get to play with all the cousins.") Many kids love to make a little book, where each page represents a new day and they draw a picture of what will be happening. Sit down for a snuggle every morning and describe the day ahead.

3. Plan no more than one event per day.
If youíre taking the kids to the Holiday pageant in the afternoon, donít expect them to sit still for dinner at Grandmaís that night. If youíre visiting your in-laws, donít plan the morning with the cousins and the afternoon at Aunt Bettyís. Kids need downtime, just to chill out, snuggle, and do whatever relaxes them. If they donít get it, they canít really be blamed for melting down when the over-stimulation gets to them.

4. Have age-appropriate expectations and plan accordingly.
A four year old canít be expected to sit quietly while you enjoy dinner at the home of your best friend from high school, for instance. If youíre doing a lot of visiting with adults, be sure the kids have something to occupy them. If they can read, buy them a new book for the occasion, one they canít wait to get into. My kids donít watch TV, but when they were little and I took them visiting, I always brought a video tape to keep them busy. Be sure your schedule includes visits to the playground or other opportunities for the kids to get some fresh air and physical activity.

5. Coach your kids about the social behavior you expect.
Role play with them in the car before you arrive, or make a game of it before you go. "What do you say when Aunt Susie gives you a present?" "What if you donít like the present?" "What do you when Uncle Norman wants to hug you hello?" "What if you donít like the dinner thatís served?" "When you want to leave the table, how do you ask?" "What will you do if the cousins start arguing?"

6. Watch your kidsí food intake in the midst of too many treats and hyped-up schedules.
Many tantrums originate from hunger. And all parents recognize the sugar high that sends kids bouncing off walls and then crashing into tears. If necessary, speak with your parents in advance about limiting treats. And carry small protein-rich snacks with you so your child doesnít have a melt-down while the adults are negotiating where to go to dinner.

7. Kids love tradition, which offers an experience of security and wonder.
Focus on traditions that connect your family, such as telling your holiday story around the fire (or a table-full of candles), stringing popcorn for your tree, playing dreidel, or singing holiday songs together. Be sure to include a tradition that gives your child the opportunity to feel good as a giver, such as buying and wrapping a book to donate, or making a present for Grandma.

8. Donít torture yourself and your kids by dragging them with you when you go shopping.
You might be able to create a positive experience for yourself without them, but thatís almost impossible to do with them in tow. Trade off with a friend to watch all the kids while the other shops. Too stressful to have all those kids underfoot? This is a great opportunity to launch a holiday tradition by watching Miracle on 34th Street!

9. Kids love to unwrap presents. You can let your kids revel in that feeling of abundance while still sticking with your values and your budget.
If youíre gifting him with a trip to the zoo, print out a photo of his favorite animal and a simple certificate, and wrap it, complete with ribbon. If she loves chapstick, buy four flavors and wrap each one separately. If you baked and decorated cookies together to take to all the older folks when you visited Aunt Sue, be sure to take photos. Then print out a certificate of Commendation for Generosity with his name on it, along with a photo of a happy cookie-eater and your child, and wrap it with a ribbon and a cookie in a baggie. That will probably bring as big a smile to his face as a toy, especially when you regale everyone present with a story about how happy he made the senior citizens.

10. The most important tip, as always in parenting, is to manage yourself so you can stay calm.
Remember that the holidays are stressful for kids, and they depend on you not only to regulate their environment, but also to help them regulate their moods. If youíre out of balance, you wonít be able to help your kids stay on an even keel. In fact, if youíre anxious about everything you have to get done, your children will almost certainly begin to act out.

Your kids donít need a magazine-spread holiday. They need you, in a good mood, living the spirit of the season and spreading love and good cheer. Find ways to laugh at what will inevitably go wrong, and be sure your own expectations of the season are reasonable. (What makes you think your difficult relative will suddenly be less difficult this year?) Pare back your schedule to do only the essentials. Make sure you nurture yourself and stay in balance. The minute your mood veers from loving to frenzied, stop. Hug your children and regroup. And at New Year's, pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself on a job well done, not just in December, but all year long.

About the author:
Dr. Laura MarkhamLaura Markham, Ph.D., is the Dear Abby of Parenting for the 21st century. A clinical psychologist trained at Columbia University in New York, she is the founding editor of the popular parenting website YourParentingSolutions.com, which features her advice column "Ask Dr. Laura Markham." Fielding daily questions from parents of infants through teens, the Good Doctor offers her trademark "compassionate wisdom," parent-tested solutions to help parents connect with their kids and create a richer family life. In addition to StorkNet.com, Dr. Markham serves as Parenting Expert for Mothering.com, Hip Slope Mama, ParentingBookmark.com, Wellness.com and Pregnancy.org, on which she hosts a regular online chat for moms. Her work appears regularly on a dozen parenting websites and in print.

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