Column – Mental health matters: Helping families thrive

Clint Davis


Parents are expert problem solvers. One thing we’re never really trained for is how to handle the holidays after having kids. There are so many new challenges — getting the baby to sleep, potty training, tantrums, nursing issues, and more. The list goes on and on. Meanwhile, parents, grandparents, and everyone else want to keep the routines the same.

As parents, we’re trying to establish our own routines and traditions, which isn’t made easy by the existing traditions and history. The struggle is real, ranging from food choices to travel plans and attention distribution among families.

Establishing new traditions while incorporating extended family takes work. With the holiday season approaching, it’s a good time to explore how to establish new traditions, let go of ones that don’t work, and find balance with extended family.

How to Establish Your Family’s Holiday Traditions

Traditions are amazing if they bring people together and strengthen marital bonds. However, if no one ever asks, “Why do we do it this way?” then is it beneficial? Traditions with deep meaning can be amazing, but sometimes we lose sight of the purpose of holidays in light of the traditions and events we attend.

Traditions that have deep meaning can be amazing, but sometimes we lose sight of the purpose of the
holidays in light of the traditions and events we attend. I want to make it clear that the point of holidays is to honor the season we are in, whether it is thanksgiving or the birth of Christ, for us Christians. Holidays should not be centered on making each other feel better about all the issues from the year. That is the byproduct of the holiday season, not the reason for the season.

When establishing traditions for your family, ask a few questions:

  • What new traditions do I want to have with my own children?
  • What traditions do I want to continue from my childhood?
  • What new traditions do I want to begin with my children’s grandparents?

Ask your spouses these questions too, as being on the same page is extremely helpful. Begin small; something fun and special doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. Traditions become special when shared among family members.

Some ideas for holiday traditions with little ones include making cookies together, reading a special story each year, making a certain food, and putting up kid-friendly decorations.

While it may seem like there’s a lot of pressure to start the perfect holiday tradition, my advice is to begin
small. Something fun and special doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming, but rather a chance to
spend moments together truly enjoying each other. Traditions become special because they’re shared amongst family members.

Some things we do are breaking out the decorations, putting up the tree, doing a thankful pumpkin, finding the star, and lighting the first fire etc. For adults this might be watching “Christmas Vacation” and adult eggnog.

Avoid Possessiveness over the Past

You and your spouse likely have ideas about the perfect (or not so perfect) holiday traditions that you grew up with. When kids enter the family, you may want to continue these traditions so they also experience these special moments. But with every new addition, time slips away, and it’s essential to avoid overcommitting.

Before signing up for every family gathering, ask yourself:

  • What traditions from the past are non-negotiable, and we want to continue? Why? What are the points and goals of these traditions?
  • What traditions from the past can be modified to fit our family better?
  • What traditions can we gently let go of or incorporate in a different way for our children?

The biggest shift between traditions with extended family before and after a baby is your focus. Prioritizing your family’s needs is paramount. There can be feelings of betrayal or competition when prioritizing your nuclear family over the extended family for the first time. Encourage healthy boundaries and avoid comparison games.

Questions like what foods are cooked, how late do we stay up, where do we do thanksgiving, who hosts, who is invited, are important, but all these things are very touchy when we lose sight of the meaning.

In some cases, there is a lot of pressure to create a perfect environment. We get into the comparison game, because of neighbors or social media and we long to have the perfect Rockwell painting in our kitchens, when in reality it can look a lot more like the Adams family.

Travel is the other big issue. When we first start our lives, we don’t usually have money for travel. Kids have to fly. Kids have to ride in cars. Kids need toys and food and security, yet many times we want to bring everything to the people who don’t have kids. The people who are retired and have nothing else going on except for the parents who are exhausted and overwhelmed to bring everything to them. Many times we expect the mom, breastfeeding and shuffling toddlers around to get in their cars and visit, visit, visit. When in reality, the kids want to be home relaxing and playing in their safe and calm environment.

One of the problems is that we are trying to make up for all the time we don’t spend with each other
throughout the year. Understandable if it is a distance issue, but truly if we do not invest in time and
conversation through the year, why do we take the few days or weeks we have for peace and turn it into stress and chaos with people we are not even in relationship with. Children from divorced homes are especially made to deal with this.

Tips for Visiting with Extended Family

Visiting with extended family, especially while meeting the needs of a baby and holding onto emerging traditions, can be stressful. Here are 5 tips to lower stress during and around the holidays:

  1. Be Flexible: Timing of holiday visits often needs to be flexible. Set up times ahead of time and be flexible with your spouse. Make your time count without overdoing it.
  2. Be Proactive: Plan ahead, communicate what you can and cannot attend, and let them know you appreciate and love them.
  3. Be Brief: If overnight stays are involved, keep it brief to avoid falling back into old family dynamics and conflicts.
  4. Be Firm: Stick to your schedule and what is best for your kids, even if family is being pushy about their agenda.
  5. Be Kind: Model kindness towards extended family, avoid over-analyzing visits, and focus on positive aspects.

Safety During the Holidays

Lastly, holidays are a prime time for unsupervised play, and the risk of abuse or exposure to adult content is at an all-time high. This most likely happens without intention and starts innocently but can be a lifelong sentence if we do not pay attention.

With smart devices and cell phones going younger and younger into the hands of kids, we have to be even more intentional around friends and family to make sure children are prepared, supervised, and then talked to after visits.

I know it is scary, but doing these few things reduces the likelihood of abuse and exposure to adult content by 90% or more. For more information, get my new book, “Building Better Bridges.”

Many abuse cases happen with child-on-child play that gets abusive or toxic due to a lack of supervision, understanding, early exposure, or previous abuse. Having these conversations can be difficult, but I hope that with these healthy boundaries, you and your family will have a wonderful holiday season that leaves you feeling refreshed and relaxed, instead of being worn out and stressed!