Monday, November 10, 2014

Holidays are not always merry and bright

by Jaia Peterson Lent

as published in GRAND Magazine

Conner stood attentively at the screen door, his bright brown eyes fixed on the street in front of his grandmother's house, his hands clutching a clay figurine of a turkey he had made for his mom. She had promised to come for Thanksgiving dinner.

“One slice of turkey, three peas, two helpings of mashed potatoes, five books, and four rounds of Crazy Eights later, Connor was still waiting. “It’s bedtime,” his grandmother said, “How about we change into our pj’s and watch your favorite show?”

“No,” Connor shouted, “I want to watch it with Mommy!” Within minutes, his hurt feelings escalated to full-blown tantrum.

Three hours later, Conner was finally asleep, his head resting on his Grandpa's lap. His grandmother gently slid the clay turkey figurine out of Conner's hand, and covered him and his sleeping Grandpa with a blanket. Only then could she breathe a little easier.

Meeting the challenges that come with holidays

This time of year, more than 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren find themselves navigating a unique set of holiday stressors. Not only do they have to prepare their grandchildren for the possibility that the children’s parents won’t show up—they have to steel themselves to weather the fallout, all while simultaneously juggling their own loss, grief, anger, and confusion related to the reasons their adult child is not able to care for their grandchild.

Despite the gaiety one hopes to experience during the holidays, grandchildren not living with their parents often feel a mixture of joy, anxiety, excitement, and sadness. No matter their age, grandchildren may not know how to deal with the emotional swings that come with disappointment, or even with pleasant surprises. What you need is a GRANDfamily strategy!

Manage the children’s expectations: If you know that their parents will not be participating in any way during the holiday celebrations, gently tell your grandchildren ahead of time. That way, if the parents show up or send a present, it’s far easier to share the good news. If the parents don’t show, it may soften the blow and help them avoid feeling forgotten or ignored.

Support the child’s desire to give: Children love their parents, even when they have been hurt by them. It’s important to let them express how they feel. During holidays, this may come through giving. Even if you fear it won’t be reciprocated, it’s important to help them find joy in giving.

Keep it simple: You can’t be everything to everyone. Figure out the few key people that your grandchildren need to see over the holidays and focus on making those gatherings the best they can be.

Create your own traditions: Children need routine, tradition, and rituals. When they had to leave mom and/or dad's home, the rituals they had were interrupted. Holidays are a terrific time to introduce some new fun traditions that don’t revolve around parents.

Jaia Peterson Lent is the Deputy Executive Director at Generations United, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of children, youth and older people through intergenerational collaboration, public policy and programs. Home to the National Center on Grandfamilies, Generations United is a leading voice for issues affecting families headed by grandparents or other relatives.

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