Managing your kids at family gatherings

Nov 10, 2011 at 11:30 a.m. ET

Holiday gatherings aren’t complete without at least one epic meltdown. With some careful planning and strategy, you can avoid the worst tantrums and scenes. Learn how to keep kids busy, reasonably well behaved and relatively calm at family gatherings.


We've all been there before. The family has gathered around a beautiful table. The turkey is perfectly browned. Everything is right out of a movie until a small child starts yowling about how she's not going to eat the green beans and she wants to go home right now. When you're not a parent, the interruption is probably endearing. When you're the parent, it's mortifying and stressful. Before your next family gathering, come up with a game plan to avoid holiday meltdowns.

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Enlist Helpers

During the holidays, family and friends want to catch up with you and your children. Ask aunts and uncles and cousins to help out with your kids during gatherings. They'll be happy to have a chance to spend time with the kids, and your kids will enjoy hanging out with special playmates. There's nothing like the inherent energy and enthusiasm of a relative who doesn't get to see your kids often.

Set Realistic Expectations

Make sure your kids understand how they're expected to behave and what they might encounter at a holiday gathering. Even young children can be prepared ahead of time. Talk about the meal, about relatives they may be shy to meet, and about how long you'll be at the gathering. Don't expect your kids to automatically know how to behave. Kids need firm rules and guidelines in new situations.

Use Distractions

There's nothing wrong with breaking out your phone and firing up Angry Birds if your kids are getting restless at a holiday gathering. You know your child best. If he isn't capable of staying calm at a grownup party for more than an hour, bring a portable DVD player or a special toy for the occasion. If your child is old enough to play board games, consider setting up a family game to keep everyone busy.

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Know When to Retreat

Even the best-laid plans won't guarantee perfect behavior or a kid who doesn't get over-stimulated or tuckered out by the end of a long party. Don't push your luck. Bow out gracefully before your child hits meltdown stage. Family and friends will understand if you can't stay at a holiday gathering after bedtime or for several hours. Graciously thank the host and wave bye-bye.

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