What Will Your Children Remember About The Holidays?

Holiday spirit or holiday madness?

It is December and the holidays are in full swing. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or something else, the break from school and work can be a great opportunity for togetherness, reflection and family. It can also be a time of way-too-many-things-to-do and way-too-little-time-to-do-them. It doesn’t help that stores started their holiday marketing strategies at Halloween and only amplify their messages as the holidays near. Of course, the marketers tell us that the right gift, beverage, decoration, or holiday party will be the key to happiness.

While many of us cognitively understand that these “things” aren’t what make us happy, it is easy to forget this during the holidays. Too many of us can get fixated on getting the right gift for our kids or cramming in yet another holiday social engagement out of fear of missing out. Kids can be especially vulnerable to the “gimmes” since the latest toys and goodies are touted everywhere they turn.

Making memories

To make the season special it can be helpful to reflect on our own childhood holiday memories. While one or two coveted toys may bubble to the surface of our memory, the most powerful recollections tend to be triggered unexpectedly and overwhelmingly by songs, smells, decorations and traditions. The positive feelings of warmth, safety, or happiness are examples of “emotional memories.” Emotional memories are very powerful and very important. Just as experiences link together different connections in our brain, experiences also wire together emotional connections. Emotions are especially powerful because they focus our attention and are a major determinant for what we remember. Sadly, not everyone has heart warming emotional memories connected with the holidays. Past holidays marred by strife, conflict or trauma may find difficult and painful emotions triggered at this time of year. Some find the holiday season a time to be endured, not celebrated. It’s okay to be honest about what the holidays mean to you and move through them from there.

Dads spending time creating emotional memories with their kids

“But I hate this family.” Emotional memories in adolescence

While the tips above make all of this sound warm and delightful, every parent knows that carving out time for family is not always met with cooperation and love. At times, our children can definitely test our holiday spirit – especially when there are teenagers in the house.

Our family celebrates Christmas, and one of the traditions in our family was to decorate the tree together. When our kids were young, they delighted in the ornaments, Christmas cookies, and holiday music. For a few years between the chaos of early childhood and the rollercoaster of adolescence, this tradition seemed to genuinely fill us all with the Christmas spirit.

This honeymoon ended abruptly when our son Brian was fifteen. He informed us in no uncertain terms that he wanted nothing to do with this family tradition and that he would rather listen to his own music behind the closed door of his bedroom, thank you very much.

If I am being honest, there was a big part of Monica and me that wouldn’t have minded if Brian had stayed in seclusion that year. Our happy holiday elf of a child had transformed into Scrooge as of late and he generally wasn’t the best company.

Monica and I looked at each other and realized that we had a choice to make – let him go or bring him in? Monica took the lead. “Brian,” she said, “I understand that you would rather not participate, but this is an important tradition for our family. You don’t have to hang any ornaments on the tree but you do need to be in the same room with us and you have to be respectful.”

Monica made it clear that there weren’t any alternatives to this plan. Brian stomped down the stairs and took a seat facing the wall, hoodie up. Even Bing Crosby emanating from the stereo sounded a little less cheerful with a new backdrop of stormy silence.

The evening went on without much event. Brian did eventually turn his chair around and asked (ordered) Erin to put his favorite ornaments in ideal places on the tree. By the end of the night he even hung one or two himself. Let’s be honest though, this wasn’t the kind of night that Hallmark cards describe.

Memories that last a lifetime

Even though all three of my adult children went on to live in different cities, they always managed to get time off to come home for the holidays. One of the first Christmases that we celebrated as a family once all three kids were out of the house reminded me of the power of emotional memories. We were all gathered around the Christmas tree catching up and sharing stories. Brian got up and put Bing Crosby on before he sat back down on the couch. Looking at the tree, he spontaneously said “You know my favorite memories growing up? Decorating the tree together as a family!”

Monica and I could hardly contain ourselves. As I burst out laughing. Brian, confused, asked why. When I reminded him that there were years when he didn’t want any part our tree decorating tradition, he was incredulous. “No way,” he responded. I always liked decorating the tree together.” He was in complete denial about some of his teenage obnoxiousness.

Loosen but don’t let go

Maintaining family rituals and traditions is a great way to stay connected. It’s reasonable to make allowances as the kids get older. Although they want and need some freedom, don’t give up on traditions just because they become such a hassle. Teens need to know that they are still part of a family. They may not be happy about that fact at the time, but it’s still important to hang on to the particular things that make your family unique. When holiday festivities send family members in a thousand different directions, it’s even more important to plan for connection time. It won’t happen if you leave it to chance.

We couldn’t make Brian hang ornaments on the tree. But we could communicate that we cared too much about him to let him go entirely. And while in the short term, the holidays don’t always feel picture perfect, the end game is a rich set of emotional memories that last a lifetime

Creating positive emotional memories

While presents might feel important now, the greatest gift we can give our children is to create a rich set of positive emotional memories. Creating family traditions, focusing on the meaning of the season, and carving out time for reflection can help buffer stress and provide a foundation for memories that last a lifetime.


  • If holidays are difficult, acknowledge this with friends and family. Find trusted friends or family and share your feelings. Be kind to yourself. Be willing to find ways to create new, more positive emotional memories. Getting support and being kind to yourself will reduce the likelihood that your negative emotional memories rub off on your kids.
  • Own your holiday schedule. What are you excited about? What can you pare back on? Carve out specific times for your family that don’t feel high pressure.
  • Create traditions. Holiday traditions create a sense of stability, nurture a sense of family identity, and remind kids that holidays aren’t just about presents. Examples of traditions include:Doing community service. Rotate the privilege of choosing the organization you work with.
  • Make space for daily reflection. Create a daily practice with your kids that allows them to reflect on the spirit of the season. They might talk about their favorite thing that happened that day, say something kind they did for others, etc. This allows emotions to sink in.
  • Be open to modifying traditions as kids get older. As our kids grow up we may need to modify traditions to respect how they’ve changed and allow teens to take more ownership over them. This doesn’t mean everything gets tossed out the window but pre-holiday negotiation is just fine.
  • Be gentle with yourself. There is no secret to creating perfect emotional memories. Even if the cookies or latkes burned and your teen dragged her feet through the evening, your efforts are what matter. In fact, many times kids look back at very trying stages of their life with a soft emotional heart because it is when they needed traditions the most. Take the long view and stay connected with your kids during the busy holiday season.