It’s that time of year again. The time of year that we’re all jolly and merry and bright, right? My memories of holidays with small children are a mixed bag (pun intended). We have some delightful memories of decorating gingerbread houses and writing letters to Santa. I’m sure you have some pretty special memories of your own, whatever holiday you might celebrate this time of year. I also have some less jolly memories that I try to forget. Lots of whining. Lots of crying. Fighting. Disruptions in routines. So special. So bright. So merry. Peace and goodwill to all, right?
In our quest as parents to make the holidays memorable and special for our theoretical “grateful, giving, flexible children” we can easily forget what our real, growing, developing young children need to be successful. I’m not here to point fingers because the finger would point directly back at me in all my holiday-loving glory. Let’s put ornaments on the tree, but don’t play with them. Let’s decorate cookies, but not so much frosting, please. Let’s go to a quiet, late night church service, but please sit still and don’t make noise. Here is a present, but don’t ask for any more. We’re full of contradictions when it comes to the holidays. Those contradictions make sense to us because we’re adults, but they don’t make sense to children. The holidays can be a very confusing time for young children because the things that we like about it are exactly the things they don’t understand. No rules? Stay up late? Eat cookies and sweets? Do extra-special-once-yearly activities? It’s easy to see that all these special parts of the holidays add up to one enormous problem for children: no routine and waning consistency. When the rules change from day to day, when something that’s usually a “no-no” is suddenly what everyone is doing, it doesn’t just confuse young children, it stresses them out. Not so merry and definitely not so jolly.
In addition to feeling their own stress about changes in routines, new people and places, and inconsistent demands on their behavior, young children also feel your stress. I know very few people who don’t feel any stress at all around the holidays; usually it ranges from a little to an enormous amount. Whatever your stress level, your child can sense it and it in turn affects their stress level. And you know what that does to your stress level? It’s an unending cycle of holiday happiness!
Here’s some ideas to help create the peaceful and merry holiday you’re dreaming of:
Because I love the holidays for lots of reasons, I always started talking about them, decorating for them and celebrating them nice and early. I learned after many years of stressful holidays with my own children and then seeing the stress that my young students felt around the holidays that as excited parents, and perhaps holiday lovers ourselves, we start too early. You know it’s difficult to sustain that level of excitement and wonder and togetherness and festivity for that long. How many of us make it to New Year’s and can’t wait to move past all things red and green? For a small child for whom time is an abstract idea, those weeks of non-routine are even longer.
Besides starting too early, my second mistake was starting too BIG. If everything is EXCITING AND SPECIAL AND WONDERFUL it is both overwhelming and overstimulating for children. Holiday traditions are wonderful, but not at the expense of everyone’s sanity. If your children have trouble with crowds, late nights, strangers or change at all, the best thing you can do for them and their wellness is play it cool. Follow their lead and see what they’re up for. Maybe you don’t need to participate in every caroling party and cookie exchange that you’re invited to. We found during Covid that we could create our own traditions, ones that my husband, children and I enjoyed quietly in our own home. We don’t plan on going back to that loud Christmas Eve gathering with extended family; we’re happier eating fondue and playing games with our chosen family.
Speaking of traditions, one of my favorite traditions from my childhood that I passed on to my own children is reading holiday books. When I was a child our holiday books were stored with the ornaments and decorations and only came out once a year. This made them extra special and an important (and quiet) part of our holiday tradition. Each year one of my children’s presents was a holiday book so that each year our collection grew to include mine and theirs. When they have families of their own, they will take their holiday book tradition to their own children. We have wonderful memories of reading holiday favorites together on the couch long after I expected to be reading picture books to my kids because they are such a special and treasured part of our holiday tradition.
How about those other traditions? That one where the stranger breaks into your house in the middle of the night after stalking you for weeks and watching everything you do? If you celebrate Christmas, Santa is probably an important part of your celebration with small children. There’s nothing wrong with the tradition if it works for your family, but I found myself talking the big man up just a little too much without realizing it. At one point my oldest looked at me in terror after accidentally breaking a glass ornament and said, “Is he watching NOW?” I realized that we put a lot of pressure onto them when they think that everything they do and every mistake they make is being judged. Most of the mistakes we make as adults don’t determine our worth or our goodness. Consider if how you talk about Santa is consistent with your parenting values.
Then there’s the elf… My children were too old for the Elf on the Shelf, but those nosy guys sure are popular now. Much like the idea of Santa, consider if the tradition fits your values as a parent. And consider if you would like someone watching you all the time and judging you as good or bad. Again, it’s something that can be lots of fun, but pay attention to how it makes your child feel and if your gut is telling you it isn’t the fun holiday tradition you want it to be, then it’s okay to be a family without an Elf.
Whatever holidays or traditions you observe this time of year, I wish you peace and love and lots and lots of laughter.
Sunday wasn’t a great day. If I was a baby you would have said I was fussy. If I was a teenager you would have said I was “moody”. I’m not a baby or a teenager though, so the only way I could think of to describe to my husband how I was feeling was: BLERGH. I was laying on my back in the middle of the bed on a regular Sunday afternoon and I was totally, 100% BLERGH.
“What’s wrong?” he asked kindly, as he always does.
If I was to describe BLERGH I would say it’s the feeling that something is wrong but you don’t know what, you don’t feel good, but there’s really no reason why and nothing specifically has happened to make you BLERGH.
Eventually we were able to laugh about it, after I cried a few frustrated tears and he hugged me and told me everything would be alright.
Have you ever felt BLERGH? I bet you have, even if you had a more sophisticated name for it. Some days are just like that. Some days the big feelings we feel are BLERGH, BLERGH and more BLERGH. The nice thing about emotions is that they are not permanent. Just like Pete the Cat and his buttons, “Emotions come and emotions go.” We just get to ride the waves along with them.
BLERGH caught in the wild
“I. Don’t. Know.” I replied and reminded him again, “I’m just BLERGH!”
What about your two year old? What if they’re feeling totally 100% BLERGH on a perfectly regular Sunday afternoon?
Chances are they will throw a whopper of a tantrum in the middle of the living floor over something as simple as the wrong color cup or toast cut in squares instead of triangles. As adults we can look into our vast store of memories and experiences and language (there’s the key) and pull out a word that describes how we’re feeling. Or we’ll make one up (Hello BLERGH!) Small children do not have that luxury; their store of memories and experiences and language is just beginning to grow.
So, what else can they do? They can scream about it. Throw things about it. Maybe even hit and kick about it. As likely as it is that a toddler or preschooler will throw a tantrum it is just as likely that the adults around them won’t be happy about it. They’ll probably be annoyed, maybe even angry.
The last thing they will feel is calm and in control, which is exactly what that tantruming child needs in that moment.
We know that not every day is good and sometimes it feels like there’s more bad days than good. We know what doesn’t work very well is ignoring the emotions we’re having and convincing ourselves that everything is fine and we feel great. Yet, this is what we say to children all the time. Everything is okay. You’re fine. There’s nothing to be sad (or mad) about.
Just so BLERGH
What if instead we tell them that they are safe? What if we tell them that the feeling will not last forever because emotions come and emotions go? What if we offer them the freedom to feel their feelings? What if we offer our calm, quiet presence? Maybe when the storm has passed we can ask them what it felt like in their bodies. or what were they thinking about. Maybe we can help them name the feeling. Maybe there’s no name for it (looking at you, BLERGH!) This approach helps build social emotional language, confidence and self-awareness.
Of course, it doesn’t need to get to the point of a tantrum before we talk with children about their emotions. Talking with young children about emotions, theirs and ours and naming them is crucial to developing emotionally intelligent people. Actually, the sooner and more often we do, the fewer of those tantrums will be necessary because they’ll develop the language to describe what’s going on inside and build memories from the experiences. What greater gift to give your child than the freedom to express how their feeling and the empathy to understand others’ emotions as well. How different would our world be if we let people feel their feelings and respected those feelings with the understanding that all feelings come and go.
Here’s a list of ten picture books about feeling your feelings for ages two and up.
The Color Monster, Anna Llenas
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, Jo Witek
The Lonely Toadstool, Kristin Addington Culpepper
The Way I Feel, Janan Cain
Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, Rachel Vail
The Feelings Book, Todd Parr
Lots of Feelings, Shelley Rotner
Baby’s Feelings: A First Book of Emotions, Little Hippo Books
Little Faces Big Feelings: What Emotions Look Like, Amy Morrison
Fall has arrived and with it; change. We see evidence of the change all around us; in the changing colors of the leaves, children going off to school, and observing what happens to a jack o lantern left out for backyard animals to nibble at and moisture to eat away at.
Adults know that change is inevitable, and even so, some of us find transitions and change stressful. We feel the stress in our physical bodies and our emotional lives too. Change can be uncomfortable, but as we’ve grown and aged we’ve come to accept that change will happen, whether we want it to or not.
Throughout our lifetimes we’ve managed big changes like a new job, a new partner, a new baby, the loss of a loved one and so many more. Daily, we have managed small changes and transitions; a change in our route to work because of road construction, changing our plans because of a sick child or even an unexpected meeting at work. While those small changes are usually just an annoyance, we have to find ways to deal with them or the constant changes will have us pulling our hair out. Those big changes take more time and experience to know how to deal with.
Now, think about your young child. While young children do often experience big changes, when you’re three years old and your immediate environment is your whole world, even small changes can feel threatening. It is entirely expected that a young child may have difficulty with transitions. It is one of the most frequent issues teachers of young children work on at school. Your child’s teachers are a wealth of information on the topic of change and transition because they guide children through it several times every day. Check out our Child Development Corner for ideas on how to help your child with transitions at home and away from home.
Enjoy the crisp fall air, the rainbow of leaves littering the sidewalks and yards and the abundance of “spooky” decorations. See the world through your child’s eyes and don’t beg change to hurry. As adults we know that the crisp air will soon be icy cold, the leaves on the ground will turn to a wet, brown mess and the yards will soon be covered with a layer of snow. While the change from fall to winter might be unpleasant, keep in mind that winter has its own gifts to share. Change will continue to come and it is our job as parents and adults to hold children’s hands through it, whether we are jumping in mud puddles or building snow people. We can all help each other through change.
Here are some teacher tested tips for helping young children transition:
Preview the transition as often as possible. We can help our children know what’s ahead simply by saying, “In ten minutes we are going to put your shoes on.” and “In five minutes we are going to put your shoes on.”
Try to establish doable routines throughout your day, especially around challenging times like bedtime and leaving the house. If your child feels like much of their day is routine and they know what to expect, an occasional change won’t have the same weight.
A visual schedule is a great way to help young children see what’s ahead. It could be as simple as pictures of them participating in the basic events of their lives: waking up, eating breakfast, going in the car, etc.
Our toddler teachers use great language with our youngest learners with the phrase, “First this, then this.” For instance, “first we will play, then we will eat our snack.” or “first we will play outside, then your grown up will come.”
Some children may appreciate an object or “lovey” to transition from one activity to another with. It gives them a sense of continuity when things change.
Tasks like getting dressed to go to school are much easier for young children when the steps are broken down into easily understood “micro” steps. Rather than saying, “Get dressed.” you can say, “What do you need first? Underwear” then “okay, what’s next, t-shirt.” Even the youngest children can benefit from hearing their grown up lay out the steps even if they can not answer the questions yet.