How to Prepare Kids for Family Gatherings

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Thanks to pandemic restrictions easing up, Filipinos can now celebrate the holidays as they did before. That means back-to-back family gatherings with your loved ones! Yes, staying at home took some getting used to; but so does being more social after keeping your distance for so long. Understandably, adults and children alike struggle with this adjustment. Kids especially need a lot of hand-holding, since they won't always know what to say or how to act.

So, how do you support your child through the whirlwind of social activities that come with Christmas? Here are a few tips to get them (and yourself!) ready for reunion season.

Tips for Preparing Kids for Big Family Gatherings

Two young girls wearing Santa hats and scarves, holding wrapped gifts

You can apply these tips to other social situations, like returning to face-to-face learning. They’re sure to help you guide your child through transitions.

1. Plan and prepare ahead.

If this is your child’s first major family gathering in years, it’s important to let them know what to expect. Walk them through what will happen when they get to the event and who they’ll meet. Let them know it’s okay to be shy around unfamiliar faces and that you’ll be right by their side to guide them. Hype up exciting activities, like opening gifts or playing party games, so they have something fun to look forward to.

Reassure them that they can come to you if they feel overwhelmed. Before you leave the house, ask them how they feel so you can calm their nerves or share in their excitement. If they have a toy or any special object providing comfort, allow them to bring it along. It can make a world of difference to have something from home in a new environment.

2. Practice by starting small.

It might help to ease them into social situations by starting smaller. Try hosting playdates with close friends and their children or inviting neighbors over for lunch before big reunions. Prepare comforting finger food for the kids to enjoy together. Treat them to something you usually reserve for special occasions, like their favorite cookies or cake. This can help them appreciate the changes to their routine rather than feeling anxious about them.

In an article published in the National Library of Medicine, Dr. Heather L. Pelletier shares how to help children struggling socially after the pandemic. “Adults should support youth in labeling their worries and fears then assist them in setting small, attainable goals,” she advises. “[…] This can progressively build momentum to overcome the social, or even general, anxiety that [they’ve developed].”

3. Check in, communicate, and comfort.

Two little girls wearing Santa hats decorating a Christmas tree with lights

Once you’ve settled in at the gathering, encourage your child to spend time with the other kids. But reassure them that you won’t be upset if they prefer to stick with you. You can say, “Try and see if you’ll have fun. You can always sit with me if you're not enjoying yourself.” This makes it clear to them that they can retreat from the group if it’s too much too fast. They’ll likely give it a shot since they won’t feel like there's no way out.

Observe from a distance and see how they’re getting along with others. You can check in with them occasionally or let them come to you as needed. Your reaction should depend on how your child handles their emotions. UNICEF recommends feeling it out and opening lines of communication: “You know your child best, and the most important thing is to manage these conversations from a place of compassion and understanding.”

4. Keep calm and stay close.

UNICEF also reminds parents that “children pick up on adults’ behavioral cues.” If they see you keeping your cool as you mingle with relatives, then they might “model your behavior.” Make sure to maintain a calm, reassuring tone when checking in with them. Avoid scolding them in front of others or forcing them to interact with people they're meeting for the first time.

Some children are slow to warm, which is normal. They’ll become more comfortable with time and practice. If your kid is immediately sociable, let them revel in their independence while you stay close. Holiday parties can be a lot for anyone, so be prepared if they seek you out even when they seem okay. Just knowing you’re there will be a big help!

5. Provide a sense of control and familiarity.

A lunch box with a sandwich, carrot sticks, green grapes, almonds, and berries

Some kids are picky eaters, while others prefer familiar food in unfamiliar circumstances. Give your little one the option to eat something from home if they’re still getting used to parties. Whip up an easy-to-make sandwich with Lady’s Choice Real Mayonnaise, just in case. Let them know that you packed baon for them and they can have it anytime. Even a simple sandwich can make a new experience less overwhelming, especially if it's their favorite.

6. Regroup and reassure.

Congratulations on getting your child through their first big family event in years! Now it’s time to regroup and assess how they liked it on the drive home or any time after. Tell them you’re proud of them for making an effort to bond with the other kids. Remind them that it won’t always be so scary and that you understand why they were nervous.

Ask them how they’d feel about doing it again since the holidays are full of reunions. Eventually, they’ll start to ease up, and you’ll need to take fewer precautions.

Do you feel more equipped to coach your kids through upcoming family gatherings? Just keep having these necessary conversations and encourage them to try new things despite their nerves. Everyone is still adjusting to the “new normal” so ups and downs are inevitable. If you need additional support, reach out to your loved ones or childcare professionals for more tips.

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