Holidays can bring out the relaxing, upbeat best (and sometimes the hectic,tense worst) in kids and parents. These times highlight the challenges of effective parenting. They are a “tester” of sorts. How can parents promote the warm atmosphere that defines the best of life in a healthy family?

Parenting starts with understanding your own personality and temperament: knowing your strengths and weaknesses. The ability to listen and engage your child in conversation while tuning in to their wants and needs will always be important.

The recipe for creating the intangible but palpable tone of a healthy family starts with the intentional use of several key ingredients. Since kids have different personalities and temperaments, parents have to understand these differences and adapt the recipe to fit their child’s individual needs.

There are, however, certain ingredients which work for any parent.

Develop Sleep Habits

The first is developing sleep habits. It is important to recharge a child’s sleep “battery”. The routines that produce healthy sleep patterns can be difficult to establish and maintain. Holidays tend to disrupt sleep routines.

Families commonly travel during holidays. Sleeping in a different bed in a different room at a relative’s home can lead to sleep problems. These problems may not surface until restarting normal sleep routines at home.

Babies and toddlers may wake up multiple times at night after returning to their own crib. At best, it may take 2-3 weeks to settle back into their sleep routine. The same issue may be compounded if sleep patterns have been erratic and difficult to change prior to the holiday. Sleep always plays a role in a child’s behavior and learning in school.

Set Expectations

Setting expectations for your child always provides the comfort of knowing what is going to happen and when it will happen. Knowing what to expect provides an effective safety net for kids. This is especially true for kids who are routine-driven.

A first grader who enjoys getting up and going to school every morning may throw a major tantrum if he or she finds out plans have changed Thanksgiving morning. Telling him/her, “We are going to Grandma Smith’s house instead of Uncle Bob and Aunt Suzy’s farm for Thanksgiving” can be very upsetting. The unexpected but necessary change in plans (Uncle Bob just got sick last night) creates anxiety.

Talking to your child as soon as you know about a change and the reason for the change in plans can make surprises less disruptive. If you know your child has major difficulty adapting to perceived abrupt changes, have periodic reminder talks e.g. “If there is a change in our plans, we will let you know as soon as possible”.

These create the expectation that you understand your child’s needs. When a sudden change does take place you can start the conversation by saying, “Just like we have talked about, sometimes things happen that surprise us”.

Plan Family Friendly Activities

Plan family-friendly activities as part of the holiday. If your child loves visiting Uncle Bob’s farm because he/she likes playing kickball in his wide-open pasture with cousins, then plan a trip to the park near Grandma’s house to play on the cool swings and slide.

You can also include the whole family in walking a mile or 5K at a nearby Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. Walking together creates the opportunity for conversations that touch on issues important to your child. This reinforces the vital role of communication in building healthy families.

The above 3 holiday ingredients can trigger adding other options to a recipe which fits the wants and needs of your family. Families working as a healthy team equals ”good stuff” for the holidays–and beyond.

Mark Holt MD