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One of my favorite childhood holiday memories brings me back to the age of eight, being tickled by my beloved uncle. I almost never got to see him, and in my eyes, he was a superhero.
I would escape the tickles, catch my breath, and then happily crawl back for more. I was overjoyed that he would sit on the floor, like a kid, and really BE with my brother and me. I loved every moment, and I am grateful for the memories.
For many of us — and certainly for many children — the holiday season rides in on a wave of touch and attention that takes so many forms: hugging, kissing, cuddling, tickling, wrestling, and dancing. Stroking hair, holding hands, lifting up small children – actions like these can weave our families closer together in celebration. Sharing stories and asking questions can reconnect us with our loved ones.
At the same time, touch and attention can be irritating, invasive, offensive, or hurtful. Sometimes touch and attention during the holiday season can be overwhelming. We might feel like our boundaries are crumbling, getting buried, or simply being ignored. We can feel irritable, angry, sad, or depressed. These are not the experiences we want for our children, and we can take steps to protect boundaries and personal safety for children during holiday gatherings.
Even if we have challenging family dynamics and complicated feelings during the holidays, we can take action to help our children have fun and stay safe with friends, relatives, and others!
Know your child’s needs – and plan for them
Many children are shy, slow to smile, or reluctant to hug when people come to visit. You can be prepared to jump cheerfully into conversation with the friend who asked your shy five-year-old a question without noticing that she just can’t seem to answer. Help direct overwhelming attention off your child and onto other things — the sports game on TV, the table of appetizers, a game, or a conversation with you about absolutely anything.
Before gatherings, you can practice or review age-appropriate boundary skills with your kids so they feel more prepared to redirect unwanted attention.
Be sure to review your Stranger Safety rules, too! Without some guidance from you, children might happily disappear into a crowd of strangers at a large party – or joyfully invite every guest to their bedroom. Be upbeat, cheerful, and clear about boundaries in advance.
You might say, “We’re going to meet lots of strangers at this party. I hope you enjoy yourself! You can talk with anyone you want inside the house, but check first with me before you go out in the yard.”
Or, “We’re going to entertain our guests in the family room tonight. If there’s something special you want to show someone in your room, check first with me.” Then, coach them how to practice Checking First Before Changing the Plan.
Provide boundary-setting back-up for your kids
Teach your child to set and respect boundaries clearly and respectfully. Modeling clear, respectful boundary-setting yourself is a great way to teach these boundary and consent skills! See Touch and Consent in Healthy Relationships for more strategies.
Even kind, respectful people you and your child enjoy almost all the time will sometimes miss or ignore boundaries, or might feel offended. Your children may need your back-up when they are setting boundaries.
For example, maybe your child is being tickled by a relative and begging for the tickling to stop – but the relative isn’t stopping. You might say cheerfully and clearly, “WHOA! Game’s over! I hear the word ‘STOP’!” and then to help your child get space by asking them to help you in another room.
This might feel embarrassing, and it’s possible your relative might be offended. Kidpower’s Underlying Principle is that safety and well-being are more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense – and, protecting a child’s boundaries is about safety. For more tips, see Advocating for Your Kids with Adult Family Members and Friends.
Make safety plans – and practice them!
If you know the behavior of certain friends and relatives can be a challenge, making and practicing safety plans can help everyone have more fun and fewer problems. For example, you could say:
“Every year, Grandma starts testing your reading and math skills, and you don’t seem to like it. What could you try?” (Possible safety plan: practice verbal redirections to say to Grandma, such as questions — “Grandma, what was your favorite book when you were a kid?”; or physical redirection — “Grandma, I want to show you…” and then leading her to look at something together.)
“Your uncle seems to like to wrestle with you, which is OK if you like it. Let’s practice things you can do or say if you don’t like it – or if you change your mind!” (Possible safety plan: practice saying, “I don’t want to wrestle now, but I DO want you to play basketball with me,” then walking away to get the ball.)
With some planning, practicing, and a willingness to back our children up when they need help to take charge of their safety, we can help them have a safer, more joyful holiday season full of good times, meaningful connection, and great memories!
Published: March 9, 2012 | Last Updated: November 10, 2021