Parents’ role in holiday harmony

A family of three, with a smiling woman and a laughing child sitting in the backseat of a car, and a man in the driver's seat turned towards them, all dressed in warm winter clothing.


Learn to ease holiday stress for kids with tips on respecting space, managing expectations, and maintaining routines. Helpful for creating a peaceful, joyous family holiday experience.

The season’s family togetherness and festive traditions can unsettle many kids and teens.

As children confront unfamiliar faces, places and activities during the holidays, emotional outbursts or withdrawn demeanors can disrupt families’ peace, joy and harmony. Restoring the spirit of the season, said an Asante psychiatrist, comes through respecting personal space, anticipating difficult conversations, maintaining important routines and acknowledging challenges to holiday cheer.

“The mood is happy, but stress levels are high,” said Dr. Kyle Rutledge of Asante Behavioral Health, an outpatient clinic in Medford.

The thrill of reuniting with family after long separations can be too intense for small children, said Rutledge. And depending on their developmental stage, kids’ willingness to express affection may have waned since the last time they saw grandparents, aunts, uncles and other extended family.

“There is so much energy and excitement but also uncertainty … it’s overwhelming,” said Rutledge. “The reality is the kid doesn’t understand the situation … they’re kind of a little scared.”

Don’t sweat a lukewarm embrace — or none at all

When a child’s social mannerisms don’t match expectations, disappointment and tension often arise between the parents and their extended family. Compounding the issue is the major societal shift within the past generation of how affection looks between kids and adults. It’s sometimes worth a conversation in advance if parents know their children may shrink from physical contact with relatives they hardly know.

“It’s better to anticipate it,” said Rutledge.

Rather than try to coax a child to comply, said Rutledge, adults can dial down their tone, body language and desire to be recognized and wait for a child to settle into the new situation, he said. Substituting casual contact — like a fist bump — for physical closeness helps to teach children autonomy and ownership of their bodies, said Rutledge. Above all, never mandate hugs between kids and adults, or even within a group of children.

“We definitely don’t want to teach our kids that they have to be affectionate when they don’t want to be.”

Similarly, kids and teens shouldn’t be compelled to participate in conversations that cause discomfort, said Rutledge. Well-intentioned adults often don’t realize they sound critical of a teen’s ambitions, mannerisms or personal appearances, he said.

“An extended family member is grilling a kid about what their plans are or what their identity is.”

Anxiety about such interactions mounts as the holidays get closer, said Rutledge, who works primarily with ages 12 to 19. And the post-holiday fallout — even if a confrontation is a small part of a teen’s overall experience — can leave rifts among family members and lasting marks on teens’ self-esteem.

Postpone or rethink tough conversations

Elders can soften their impact on younger family members by embracing more supportive — rather than active — roles, said Rutledge. Grandparents often fret about their grandchildren’s future success and happiness. But their counsel can sound harsh to a generation with different values and vocabulary, said Rutledge. Suppress the urge during holiday celebrations, he said, to try to steer a grandchild in specific directions.

“There’s always another time, so don’t force it.”

It’s never too soon in a child’s life, however, to set boundaries. That could mean designating as off-limits certain topics, such as where teens intend — or don’t intend — to go to school or how they’re dressed, said Rutledge. A more casual, less confrontational approach, he said, is for teens and parents to redirect uncomfortable conversations. Being assertive yet still respectful, said Rutledge, often preserves everyone’s feelings.

“It’s more about … stay true to yourself.”

Families also should stay true to what’s important the other 50 weeks of the year. Spending part of each day doing something “normal” with a child — no matter the age — helps to ease the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people, said Rutledge.

“It there’s a part of their routine that’s very important to them … make sure that’s still part of their day.”

Observe important rituals and cultivate calm presence

The sacred hour for many families of young children is bedtime. Even if kids’ sleeping accommodations are new, the predictable rituals of bathing, reading a story and getting tucked into bed can be preserved. Grandparents’ calm presence, without correcting a child’s behavior, is welcome any hour of the day, said Rutledge.

“You can always find something that didn’t go well,” he said. “Think about all the things that did go well.”

Feedback about a visit is much better received when families feel bonds were strengthened during the holidays, said Rutledge. This happens through joyful activities, peaceful proximity and what Rutledge calls “no-strings-attached time.” While teens are more reluctant to participate with the rest of the family, said Rutledge, they ultimately enjoy holiday traditions and rituals, which offer reassurance during this phase of rapid change.

Change can be felt more keenly at the holidays, said Rutledge, adding that patients commonly refer to the first holiday absent a family member, friend, pet or other significant relationship. With holidays serving as waypoints in the human lifespan, any loss can be felt afresh. And new living situations, such as stepparents and blended families, can feel more challenging, he said.

“Those things are going to come out for sure,” he said.

Anticipating, honoring and making space for grief’s reemergence can bring families closer together — keeping the holiday spirit alive all year.

The holiday season is more than just a collection of challenges; it’s a canvas for building new traditions and creating cherished memories. These festive times offer a chance to pause from our busy lives, bringing opportunities to grow closer, understand each other a little better and enjoy the holiday spirit in whatever capacity it comes.

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Celebrate with cancer survivors at this year’s Walk for Hope, scheduled for Oct. 5 at the Heimann Cancer Center in Medford. Register to walk or volunteer by Sept. 20 to receive a free T-shirt.