Parenting Experts: Don’t Let Stress Derail Thanksgiving

In this trying time of economic challenge for so many families – and especially for families with young adults in college – simply coming home for the holidays can be a stressful event.

Today’s students are under an unprecedented amount of pressure to make the best grades possible, at all costs, sometimes even to the detriment of their peace of mind and moral code.

Add to THAT the underlying worries of world unrest and an uncertain economic future.

Parents wonder, will our kids have jobs in their fields when they graduate? At every turn, parents are reminded how hard their children will have to work in order to carve out a life that will sustain them.

“Today’s families are under a formidable amount of stress,” says parenting expert and author Malcolm Gauld. “How are they to connect with the peaceful spirit of giving thanks, as the family comes together Thanksgiving weekend or for other upcoming holidays? Even trying to connect to and hold on to that good feeling can be a pressure.”

Malcolm and his wife Laura Gauld are co-authors of the parenting book, “The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have,” and The Biggest Job parenting seminars. They also run Hyde Schools, a network of prep schools in Maine and Connecticut that has led the way in character education and leadership development for more than four decades.

“In our increasingly achievement-oriented culture, we tend to mark the time with our awards, diplomas, new car or sports victory, like the homecoming game,” says Malcolm. “These things may be great memories, but they will not sustain a family’s joy over time. In the end, it’s not our material successes or achievements that will inspire our families.”

“In an ever-changing world that seems to be moving faster and faster, the things that most nourish us and keep us close to the Thanksgiving and holiday spirit tend to be found in the things that really keep us connected, person to person,” Laura adds. “Often these are the things that do not change, the aspects of our lives that are constant.”

What can parents do to help the family connect to the more meaningful and memorable opportunities of the season?

The Gaulds offer some tips:

1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

During a jam-packed weekend, especially one that we’ve been waiting for, it’s easy to build those Kodak-moment expectations and get stuck on the details that have to be ‘perfect’ – the dinner, the house, the decorations, what time people arrive, what the kids have planned, and so forth.

“Don’t sweat the details – the stress will rob you of the opportunity to be present, to experience joy and spontaneity with your family. Know when to take hold and when to let go of priorities throughout the weekend. As parents, the more we try to control the order of events, the less hold we actually have.”

2. Take some time to build family traditions.

The big picture of raising children is done with the actions, routines, and practices that make up a lifetime of memories and habits. Often, the value of these actions is seen looking back at one’s upbringing.

“It’s not the amount of time you will spend together at Thanksgiving, or any holiday, that will be important – it’s what you will do with it,” says Laura. “Build special memories through traditions, old or new. If Grandma made a certain dish every year, then make it together with your kids. If you want to get everyone out of the house to enjoy nature, initiate an annual hike to a favorite place. These are the things that, over time, will be cherished.”

“And remember, you can be in charge of the turkey – but you don’t have to do everything yourself,” adds Malcolm. “Kids love to be involved. Let them help with the weekend plans and preparations. Think of a special project they can be responsible for. Kids enjoy being trusted participants in the family gathering, and it helps to build their self-esteem. It also introduces them to the idea of carrying on the family traditions themselves when they are adults.”

3. Allow obstacles to become opportunities.

When things go wrong – and some things always do – try to keep your sense of humor and positive attitude. Be open to the ways in which challenges and failures can become opportunities for growth, learning, conversation and camaraderie. And be aware of what can be fixed and what can’t. Think of how your family responds when you hit a bump in the road and burst out in laughter; that’s the kind of Kodak moment to cherish.

“If you ruin your turkey, or get a flat tire on your way to your Aunt Louise’s house with the family, the meal can be changed and the flat can be fixed,” says Malcolm. “Don’t let your disappointment or your stress weigh down the event. Allow for plans to change, and use your imagination to find communal joy by sharing stories, memories, and ideas for celebrating another way if need be. Be creative.”

4. Finally, when the holiday is over, continue to gather for regular meals.

“Studies clearly indicate that the experience of sharing a daily meal as a family helps to increase self-esteem in teenagers, and decreases the chances of depression and even drug use,” says Laura. “Often we are so busy that parents eat on the run, and so do the kids. But we cannot underestimate the power of a shared meal. So don’t wait for a special occasion. Make the effort to have dinner together regularly as family. And light the candles!”