Prepare Children for Visiting Relatives
For many families, the holiday season is a time to rekindle relationships with extended family members. For some children, visitors' comings and goings can be exciting and worrisome. How can you help your child feel prepared for visits with relatives, and how can you tell when your child needs a little extra support?
Children handle uncomfortable feelings in different ways. Consider first how behaviors may send important signals about how a child feels. Unless they're exceptionally capable of expressing their needs, children don't usually clarify that they feel worried or need a break from the commotion. Picking up on behavioral signals can help you gauge the level of support your children need.
Imagine the scene: Your Aunt Betty is arriving soon and will meet your children in person for the first time. Your children have heard a lot from you about Aunt Betty. They know she is part of your family and has promised gifts. As her arrival nears, one child becomes increasingly excited, so excited she can't stop talking about Aunt Betty as she runs frantically around the house. Your other child is quietly clinging to you and has returned to sucking his thumb, but won't say what is wrong.
Both children in this example are communicating through their behavior that they are worried about Aunt Betty's visit. For some children, worries lead to what looks like over-excitement; for others, worries lead to quiet, regressive behaviors (such as thumb-sucking or "baby-talk"). Now that you've identified what behaviors indicate that they're worried, what can you do?
Provide safety and stability
When helping any worried child, first encourage feelings of safety and stability. For the running-all-over-the-house child, help her stop, so she knows you are in control of the situation. For the quiet, regressive child, reassure him that you are there for him, and will be even after Aunt Betty arrives.
Once children know you'll ensure they are safe and contained, help them talk about their questions or worries about Aunt Betty's visit. One way to start this is to point out that their behavior changed when you said Aunt Betty would arrive soon. This helps children connect their behavioral responses to their feelings and opens doors to communicating what is troubling them.
Make yourself available by saying, for example, "Wow, you've been running around ever since I said Aunt Betty's plane is landing soon. I've been busy getting ready, but I am here for you and I am going to help you stop. Let's talk about what this is going to be like. Aunt Betty knows it will take a little time for you to get to know her and I'll be here the whole time to help you."
Make sure your children have a sense of what to expect, including what will stay the same during a visit (dinner at the table and the bedtime routine with Mommy or Daddy). Throughout the visit, be available if they need to turn to you for comfort or support or if their behavior indicates they need a break.
Finally, let Aunt Betty know that your children might need a little time to warm up to her. Preparing her will help her feel less rebuffed — and you less embarrassed — when your children react to her arrival in their own ways.
Regardless of how your children react, be there to give them the space they need and interpret their behavior, helping them feel supported and understood. Most likely, things will settle and your children will quickly warm up to Aunt Betty, so much so that when it comes time for her to leave, you'll have a whole new set of behaviors to interpret as you prepare them for her departure!
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families.