Monday, November 24, 2008

How to Avoid Thanksgiving Stress

As a mom, I always view big holidays like Thanksgiving with a mixture of excitement and anxiety.

There are a few kinds of preparation that will save both parents and children a few holiday headaches. Packing extra clothes for your children or allowing them to change into their pajamas for the long ride home are great ideas. Giving your children nutritious snacks before going to the big family meal (with lots of strange foods they've never seen before) can take the stress out of whether they're eating or not. Reminding yourself that Thanksgiving is one day out of 365 can help keep the day in perspective.

Still, there are some parts of Thanksgiving that are bound to cause some stress. Here are a few parenting hints to keep in mind.

Control Your Expectations:

As soon as you arrive at your holiday gathering, there will be a whole host of introductions to be made. Please remember that relatives you know but your children don't feel like strangers to them. A crowd of unfamiliar faces can be very stressful -- especially when an introduction is followed by unreasonable expectations. We've all heard introductions like this one (or been the victim of them):
-Lucy, this is your Great Aunt Doris! The last time she saw
you, you were in diapers!

-Aunt Doris, Lucy was the lead in the school play this year.

-She was a rutabaga.

-Why don't you say your lines for Aunt Doris, dear?

-C'mon! She'd love to hear them!

-Louder, honey, Aunt Doris can't hear very well....

-Oh, well, at the actual play, she didn't forget her lines like that,
Aunt Doris.

-Hmm? Oh! Yes, of course she'll give you a kiss.

-Lucy, kiss Aunt Doris.

-I don't care what she smells like, kiss her! Oh, goodness. Why
on earth are you crying? [Lucy runs away.]

-Sorry, Aunt Doris...

I have found it is best to give children a chance to "make friends" with new relatives in whatever way they are most comfortable. Sometimes that means that it will take time to warm up to someone new.

When you are introducing someone to your child, do so in a way that reveals important information about the new adult -- not potentially embarrassing information about your child. Saying, "Aunt Doris used to fly airplanes!" can intrigue your child and get them to ask questions.

Another way to introduce older relatives is to make the family relationship plain. Tell Lucy that Aunt Doris is Danny's Grandma or Great Grandpa's sister. Then, sit back and let your child find his or her own way to relate to Aunt Doris. It may not happen right away, but over the course of the night, your child might surprise you.

We usually make the introductions easier on our kids in two ways. We arrive early, so they're meeting people one-at-a-time. And we arrange to meet relatives we know well and all walk in together. It can be a lot less intimidating to meet people when you are already surrounded by friends.

Keep the Schedule in Mind:

If yours is a family with a definite routine -- naps at a certain time, dinner at a certain time, etc. -- then family holidays can throw a wrench in the works. When you're planning your day, think about your children's schedule.

If you're nursing a newborn or you have a child who will need a nap, talk to your hosts in advance about setting aside some "quiet space" that won't be violated. When we were first married, we were guests of my husband's parents for more than one holiday. They were always so thoughtful when I asked for a little "retreat space" for the baby and me. Usually, I could go to a quiet guest room when the baby needed to eat or sleep, or when I could tell that the baby was feeling stressed by all the noise. Sometimes a little quiet was what we both needed to refresh.

Now that my children are older, my husband's mother still keeps one room as a quiet room for those times that the kids need a break or a rest. Making space away from the action can be just enough to help your children manage the holiday schedule without a major breakdown.


Keep Private Matters Private:

The biggest source of parent stress at the holidays (besides what your brother's new wife will think when she sees Uncle Martin drunk) is how very public our parenting of our children becomes.

Holiday parenting can sometimes be initially lax (when you ask yourself "why on earth isn't someone stopping this behavior??!??") Then, as you watch cousin Harold try to feed popcorn to the new baby and decide you must be the one to step in and stop it, you are startled by the blur that is cousin Harold's dad moving at superhuman speed to LOUDLY and with a scowl that would frighten the most hardened criminal shout at his son WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?? CAN'T YOU SEE SHE'S JUST A BABY?!??! I DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW YOU COULD BE BEHAVING SO BADLY IN FRONT OF ALL THESE PEOPLE! GET YOUR COAT ON, MISTER, BECAUSE WE'RE GOING TO THE CAR RIGHT NOW!!!

Whew. What a nightmare. Please be sure that isn't you. I'll do the same.

I know it can be tempting to just let the kids be kids when there is a large group, but my husband and I always are sure to keep a close eye on how ours are behaving throughout the holiday visit. If I find that one of my children is having trouble keeping his hands to himself or following the other basic rules of happy play, I pull him or her aside into a separate room (usually pointing to the offending child and saying, "come with me, please") and I parent them firmly, but privately. That way, I can get my point across without distraction or drama and my child feels respected, not embarrassed, and has a chance to 'reboot'. When we're both ready -- sometimes I wait even 10 minutes if necessary -- then we can rejoin the group.


Don't forget to Laugh:

This was a lesson taught to me by my sister-in-law. She is a terrific laugher -- even in the face of the worst circumstances.

Imagine, your family is seated at your Grandmother's formal dining room table with place settings of her finest china and silver and guests dressed in their Thanksgiving best. You look over to make conversation with your sister's new fiance and are distracted by the fact that he seems to be looking past you. As you slowly turn your head, you take in the aghast expressions of your Grandmother, your parents, Uncle Bernard, Aunt Ruthie, and every other family member present at the Thanksgiving feast.

"What ever could they be looking at?" you wonder to yourself. Then "oh, no!" flashes through your mind.

Your head snaps to your two-year-old smearing mashed potatoes and gravy all over his face and hair. In the ten seconds you looked away to make conversation, he has managed to fling cranberry sauce across the room and onto Cousin Larry's toupee. He is now filling his nose with sweet baby peas and blowing them as far as he can. (Your brother is laughing. For a fraction of a second, you aim your darkest thoughts at his future progeny.)

What do you do?

You politely say, "excuse me" and remove your child from the room. Your loving husband offers to help. "Save a plate for me. Okay?" you ask, and he agrees. You spend the next twenty minutes bathing your little rascal.

Don't forget to laugh.

That's the worst-case scenario. Even if it happens -- which it won't -- it is nothing you can't handle. Just, as you deal with even the worst of circumstances, don't forget to laugh.

Today's tragic behavior will be a hilarious family story... someday. But only if you can bring yourself to deal with it gracefully. So, deal with it... and laugh, even if you have to laugh so hard, you cry.


And finally,

Be Thankful.

If you remember how lucky you are to have a loving family, the craziness doesn't seem to matter so much. If you remember to be grateful for a roof over your head and healthy children and warmth and laughter, then the bumps in the road can seem smaller. Take the time to appreciate the people around you and let them know how much you care about them. Do that, and the Thanksgiving stress will seem to melt away.

(Oh... and a little drink won't hurt, either...)

- Midwest Mom


  1. What great advice. Thankfully, we aren't traveling this year but I'll still need to remember to laugh or the stress of making a full t-day dinner will be overwhelming.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. How thoughtful and helpful, thanks.

  3. Keeping private matters private. When my son was 4 yrs old he announced at the family T'day dinner that his scrotum hurt. You would have thought it was prayer time again the way everyone bowed their heads.

  4. And don't forget when all else fails you can insist that you were adopted and threaten to go hunting for your birth parents and order chinese food instead of that incredible turkey!!!

    keep laughing!! great post!

  5. HEHEHE..I can't believe you have been to ALL our family functions..HEHE
    Thanks for the reminders..

  6. AbbyJess,
    I'm glad you won't have the headaches associated with traveling, but cooking Thanksgiving dinner is it's own category of stress. Take care and try not to get overwhelmed. There are a few things I do when I cook for Turkey day that make the difference. First, I make "fresh" bread with frozen bread dough. It makes the house smell terrific, and it's something that pretty much makes itself. Second, I find a long-cooking dish (like sweet potatoes) that won't mind cooking during the day in the slow-cooker. That makes for fewer headaches as I'm getting things ready during the last hour. Last, I put my husband to work. When we're the hosts, he is in charge of cleaning and setting the table with the china. He usually surprises me with his efficiency! Two years ago, he even had fresh flowers on the table! Go figure! Good luck, and I hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    Have a great Thanksgiving. Hope you enjoyed a little laugh!

    Me-Me, That is *hilarious*! I remember when I was little. My brother (3 years younger than me) was potty-training and we were at my Mother's parents house. She was raised in a very strict household with *superb* manners. Well, my little brother excused himself to use the restroom, and my mother told him to call her if he needed help. My brother decided he didn't want help from my mother. He wanted it from his grandfather instead. Musical calls of "Papa! Come wipe me!" came loudly and repeatedly. The whole family was laughing. My mother didn't budge. She gave her father one of those looks that said, "Well... are you gonna go?" Finally, through tears, he yelled, "NO-O, here comes your MO-ther!" We roared.

    I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    I will keep that option in mind! But, honestly, the food at my husband's mother's house is soooo delicious, I don't think take-out will be on the menu! The down side of having Thanksgiving dinner at her house, though, is no leftovers! :( (so sad...)

    Have a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving!

    Ha! I'm glad *someone* can sympathize! And I'm very glad you came by the blog. I hope you have a terrific (and in retrospect, hilarious) Thanksgiving.

    Best wishes to all, MM

  7. WOW - what great tips/advise!! I hope you guys have a stress free and wonderful Thanksgiving - thanks for the great list! Kellan

  8. Oh this is a great post. I was just reading it outloud to some co workers. It's like a game Bob and I like to play called 'worse case scenarios' where we have basically turned our relatives into characters and prepare for the worse.

    Thanks for the great advice! I'll keep it in mind for Christmas!

  9. Laurie and Kellan,

    Thanks! I hope you both had a very safe and happy Thanksgiving.

    As for us, there were no ruined toupees this year and no table dancing by elderly relatives...

    On the contrary, the food was delicious, the friends were plentiful, and the gratitude was readily expressed throughout the celebration!

    All in all, I'd say that made it a relaxing, fun time. :)

    Have a great week!
    - MM

  10. That's just too dang funny! Great advice as well. You just really can't take life to non-seriously. I always remind myself "who do I think I am that I take myself so seriously?" just as a reminder to lighten up sometimes.

    Biggest, worst mess Hali's ever made as veggie dip flung around most of our apartment when she was 2. I just looked at her and looked at the mess and sat down on the floor and laughed my butt off. It was funny to walk in to.


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