The Modern Teen

Inside the mind of the American teen

Holiday Break or Holiday Breakdown? Coping With Your Kids

Many people will leave work tonight and begin about 12 days of stress at home.

Many people will soon leave work, not to return until 2014.  A holiday break offers an opportunity to stay home, rest, relax, enjoy the holidays, and spend time with the family.

But let’s face it—spending time with the family can sometimes be the hardest work of all, particularly when your family is…challenging.  Perhaps most challenging is having the kids at home for much longer than you, or they are used to. 

This is supposed to be a time of holidays, cheer, and togetherness—is it OK if you are secretly dreading the long days with your family? 

Everyone around you seems to be looking forward to rest, relaxation, and free time, but what if staying at home with your kids is the most exhausting job you have? Even if your kids are not experiencing psychological difficulties, parenting is hard and you may need a break from your holiday break.

It seems like two sets of suggestions are in order.  First, how can you get through the holiday break with as few conflicts (i.e., parent-child conflicts; child-child conflicts; you-partner conflicts) as possible?  Second, how do you deal with the guilt you experience when you find yourself secretly counting down the days until your kids go back to school?  

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Reducing Conflicts

1.  Structure, structure, structure. Your kids need a break too; all year they have busy school schedules, extra-curricular activities, etc. But that does not mean that they should be left without any structure for an entire day, or days, at a time. Every day needs an activity, chore, or goal.  It may be simple (watching a movie) or more complex (a project, chore, outing), but a structured day is ultimately keeping kids’ appetite, desire for sleep, and ultimately their behavior in a rhythm they are used to. 

2.  You need a break, if you can get one. The holiday break is a disruption in everyone’s routine.  Pressure mounts, and if you have folks in the home that you have strong emotional reactions to, then the pressure may even become unbearable. It is OK to get a break. Run an errand. Find 20 minutes to read a magazine. You already know this, but it’s good to be reminded that sometimes the best way to avoid a conflict is simply to walk away and catch your breath. There’s good psychological evidence to suggest that high levels of negative emotions actually changes the way our brains think. Catch your breath from the chaos, and your will truly get a new perspective and a second wind.

3.  Don’t change the rules! Just because it is the holiday break does not mean that the rules take off too. Relaxing rules invites your child to “test your limits.” How much can they get away with once they see that you are allowing exceptions? You don’t want them to try to find out.

Coping with the Guilt

We spend a lot of time thinking about what “people” think about, and how they think of us.  We are under the belief that we are “supposed” to enjoy time with our family.  Women especially are pressured to feel that to be a good mother, they are “supposed” to want to spend as much time with their children as possible, and they “should” never feel “ready” for that time to end. 

But that is not realistic. And there’s good research to suggest that we generally are pretty bad at guessing what other people “think” and we tend to overestimate how much other people are thinking about us. 

Of course mothers and fathers love to be with their children. But parents also need a break in order to remain good parents. Parenting is hard work, and a change to our parenting schedule (i.e., suddenly on-call 24/7 for the entire winter break, with different people in the house than usual) is not something that anyone should be able to integrate into their lives overnight. At some point, everyone wants to go back to work, or back to school, and that is OK. 

Remember, your focus may be on nurturing your child for the next 12 days, but the best gift you can give yourself this holiday season is permission to take care of YOU. The best parents are those who are honest with themselves and know what they need to do to stay calm, positive, and rested. This is also a great example to set for your kids.    

Best of luck for a low conflict and low guilt holiday season!

Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Term Professor and the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He writes about clinical adolescent psychology.

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