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Holiday Traditions as a Centering Force

2021-12-20 by Dr. Jenny
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Hey parents! How’s this holiday season going for you? Does it have you energized and hopeful, or exhausted and feeling like you’d rather be curled up in bed? I honestly swing between the two — so, I thought it would be nice to reflect on how holiday family traditions can be a “centering” or “grounding” force (as we like to say in the world of kids’ therapy) for parents and kids. Family and cultural traditions have a magical way of connecting our lives, in this crazy moment of COVID, backwards to the loved ones who lived before us and forwards to the little ones that we’re raising.

I’m part Swedish, so every juletid (Christmas time) I unpack my grandmother’s wooden candlesticks and gnomes that my siblings and I used to call “stumpfaces” when we were kids (long story). I talk about the sassy, funny lady my grandmother was and what parts of her personality I see shining through in my kids. I find these connections through generations very centering. What clicks with you to make life seem like it makes sense, like you can see things with a clear head and feet on the ground? 

3 Ways to Make Meaning for Your Family Through Holiday Traditions

Boy wearing Christmas pajamas looking joyful

Here are a few things you can do about traditions — new or old — to help them reinforce the strengths of your family’s meaning systems and your relationships with your kids:

  1. Tell a story about a grandparent, aunt, neighbor, or someone else who you used to see at the holidays. Talk about that person’s qualities and what you, as a child, thought of them. Were they kinda crazy? Did you learn anything from being with them? How did it affect you? When you talk about your own mental experiences as a child, you can open up a lot of insight for your kids about who you are, and their own inner workings.
  2. Make something. It could be a new idea you saw online, or something you’ve made for decades. Get your kids involved by telling them the story of what it means to you. Depending on your child’s age, you can break down the steps so they can contribute (for example, toddlers can stir with a spoon with your help, while a 5-year-old might even try pouring the vanilla extract!). Talk out loud from step to step (like “hmmm — ok, what’s next?”) so they can chime in and feel like a helper. It doesn’t need to be perfect: the back-and-forth act of building something together matters most.
  3. Fill your calendar with more than gift-getting. Kids can get hyper-focused on their wish lists and gift exchange. If you loved doing things around the holidays as a kid — like ice skating, celebrating the winter solstice with candles, or getting out in nature — put it on the calendar and help your child look forward to it year after year. This type of visual reminder will give them a sense of predictability and security that kids really need right now. 

This is also a time for deciding which traditions didn’t have meaning for you, and maybe felt full of guilty obligation! Take time to think about it, reflect on who you loved and what you did with them as a kid, and carry it on. Happy holidays!

For more on play and wellness, check out these articles by Dr. Jenny >

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Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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