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Preventing the nightmare before Christmas

A family takes a picture with a phone in front of the Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception before the Christmas Eve mass, in Manila, Philippines, December 24, 2021. (OSV News photo/Lisa Marie David, Reuters)

By Lisa Popcak

(OSV News) — A friend — we’ll call her Barbara — once confided to my husband and me: “I hate to admit this, but, deep in my gut, I’m dreading the holidays. Every year around this time my kids’ behavior just disintegrates. Visiting with relatives is always the worst part. The kids are overstimulated at one house, then bored at another. I know I have good kids, but around the holidays they seem to morph into whiny, greedy little monsters. Is there a way for me to get through this year with my sanity and my family intact, or should I just hide out on a desert island until it’s all over?”

Although we can probably all sympathize with her feelings, happy and peaceful holidays are possible. However, as we told Barbara, it takes planning and action.

The first step for Barbara is to picture herself, her kids and her husband alone on that desert island at holiday time. We asked her to imagine what kind of things they would be doing together. She mentioned baking cookies, playing games and reading. With those things in mind we told her to get out her calendar and block out times over the next few weeks for the family to stay home and do some of those things together.

After she has those times written in ink on her calendar, she needs to call a family meeting. At the meeting, she and her husband should discuss with their children the behavior they all need to exhibit over the holidays. This isn’t intended to be a long lecture of dos and don’ts, but rather guideposts to help the children over the next few days.

For example, you might tell the children that the next few days are going to be very busy. To ensure that all the busyness doesn’t become too much, she could tell them she’s scheduled time together as a family. Then you can add: “But we’ll also need to make sure we are all behaving in a way that makes this time pleasant for us all. We expect that we will all make an effort to speak to one another kindly, that we will treat the homes of those we visit with respect, and that we will make an effort to be pleasant when we have to try a new food or do something that is different from what we do at home. Over the next few (days) we will be practicing these behaviors at home so we’re prepared by the time we get to Grandma’s.”

Setting up these kinds of guidelines gives the family more to work with than the arbitrary “OK, we’re at Grandma’s now. Kids, behave.” that so many of us fall back on. Practicing these behaviors, as well as any other normal family rules, over the next few weeks are key in making them stick.

If the kids start picking on one another — for example, in the car on the way to practice for the Christmas play — mom or dad should say: “Kids, you are not speaking kindly to one another as we all promised we would. Let me hear you work this out kindly.” You may even need to feed your kids the words they should say: “John would you please say, ‘Margaret, may I please have my book? I wasn’t finished with it yet.'” When John repeats the words in a pleasant voice, it will be Margaret’s turn to repeat: “Sure, John. Sorry I took it without asking.”

If the kids can’t speak kindly when directed to, just calmly turn the car around and go home. A parent wouldn’t hesitate to do so if one of the kids came down with a contagious fever. Likewise, a parent shouldn’t hesitate to do so if the family’s emotional temperature is running too high for its own good.

Another way to make the holidays easier and more pleasant is to use a code word, a special word that only the members of the immediate family understand. Then, if someone starts to get really burned-out during a visit, or someone just doesn’t know how to handle it when Aunt Gertrude pushes them to eat her famous possum pie, he or she can quietly whisper something like “Snodgrass” to mom, dad, husband or wife as a signal that a moment alone is needed with the other person to work out what should be done.

Once alone, figure out options. Find a graceful way to bow out of the visit early? Tell Aunt Gertrude that, though you’ve heard wonderful things about her pie, you once had a horrible allergic reaction to possum and you regret that you’ll have to pass? Perhaps the person using the code word just needs an extra hug to get through the stress of the visit. Whatever the solution, the code word will help the family to remember that they are working as a team during the holidays and that they can each rely on one another for help.

While nothing can guarantee a completely stress-free holiday, these simple techniques can go a long way toward helping families have a happy, healthy and holy time this year.

Lisa Popcak is the vice president of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, a family-life coach, lactation consultant and professional educator. For more great parenting resources visit

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