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Holiday harmony: Kansas State University experts share tips on helping preschoolers deal with family gatherings, divorce

Friday, Dec. 18, 2015 

MANHATTAN — They may seem perpetually amped on treats and traditions, but young children are often confused and stressed, especially in unfamiliar situations, during the holidays.

Two experts from Kansas State University's College of Human Ecology have advice on how to help preschoolers deal with large family gatherings and with newly divorced parents.

Holidays can be confusing and emotionally charged for young children as they are out of their normal consistent and predictable routines. Additionally, in unfamiliar settings, adults may have differing expectations for young children, said Anna Nippert, instructor of childhood education, who shares the following tips on helping children stay in control of themselves and their behaviors.

• Carve out time for you and your child, Nippert said. Working with you on holiday tasks gets the child ready for changes in routines and seeing new people. Talk about who you will see, where you are going and what fun activities you will get to do together, while reassuring your child that you will be there with her. You can also start to prepare her for different expectations. For instance, "Remember that your grandma's dog is very old, and can't play with you like you play with Sparky. What do you think you can do with grandma's dog that would be safe and fun for you and the dog?"

• Use a calendar to count down the days until you leave for grandma's house, the number of days you will be there and the number of days until you return home, Nippert said. This will help your child gain a sense of understanding of what is happening first, next and last. He will be able to see the changes on the calendar and anticipate what comes next.

• Introduce relatives and new settings, while clearly setting limits and expectations. Nippert suggests greeting Grandpa, and walking around his house together, exploring and telling stories about the things that his grandpa has. Then set clear limits for what the child can touch, where he can play, what is an appropriate noise level. While you want to be clear in setting limits, try to introduce them to your child during your conversation, not merely a list of do's and don'ts, she said.

• Read your child's behaviors as an attempt to communicate, Nippert said. Does he need help understanding what he can and can't play with? Does he feel uncomfortable around all of the people he hasn't seen for some time? Is he needing some time with you to help him regain control of his body? Is he tired? Hungry? Overwhelmed? By assigning meaning to your child's behaviors, you can react to them in a way that helps meet the needs he is trying to convey, instead of just trying to mask undesirable behaviors, she said.

Holidays can be especially difficult for newly divorced or separated families, particularly for the children. According to research, it's important for parents to provide information to meet the children's immediate needs; the children should know where they will be celebrating the holidays and who will be attending each holiday celebration.

Parents should also reinforce to the children that their relationship with both parents will continue, said Mindy Markham, associate professor in the School of Family Studies and Human Services and certified family life educator.

For example, Markham said a parent could say something like, "You'll get to be at our house for Christmas Eve. In the morning after you open your gifts, it will be time for you to go to your dad's house to celebrate Christmas Day with your dad, grandma and grandpa. Your dad and I both love you and want to be able to celebrate Christmas with you."

When communicating with children, it's also important to listen to the children's feelings and reinforce that the divorce is not the children's fault, she said.

Many children believe that their parents divorced because of something they did, and parents should make sure the children understand that the divorce is not their fault. Parents should also listen to their children's questions and feelings about the divorce and celebrating holidays as this is a way for parents to show children that they care for them, and that their feelings are important, Markham said. 


Melinda Markham

Anna Nippert


College of Human Ecology

Written by

Jane P. Marshall

At a glance

Experts from Kansas State University's College of Human Ecology share advice on helping preschoolers cope with large gatherings and divorced parents during the holidays.