What Will Your Children Remember About The Holidays?

It is December and the holidays are in full swing. Whether you celebrate a holiday this month or not, the break from school and work is an 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 in October 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 social engagement out of fear of missing out. Kids can be especially vulnerable to the “gimmes” since the latest products are touted everywhere they turn.

Dads spending time creating emotional memories with their kids

Making memories

While one or two coveted gifts may bubble to the surface of our memories, our most powerful recollections tend to be triggered unexpectedly and overwhelmingly by songs, smells, foods, and traditions. The positive feelings of warmth, safety, or happiness are examples of “emotional memories.” Emotional memories are very powerful and important. Just as experiences wire different connections in our brain, experiences also link together emotional connections. Emotions are especially powerful because they focus our attention and are a major determinant of what we remember.

Of course not all of our emotional memories connected with this time of year are positive. Past holidays marred by strife, conflict, grief, or trauma may trigger difficult and painful emotions this time of year. That’s why some people 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.

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

Every parent knows that carving out time to make emotional memories is not always met with cooperation and love. At times, our children can definitely test our holiday spirit.

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, candles, 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 music emanating from the speakers 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 movies 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 with our adult children reminded me of the power of emotional memories. We were all gathered around the tree catching up and sharing stories. Brian got up and put music 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 we 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.” Those tough holidays had faded from his memory.

Loosen but don’t let go

Maintaining family rituals and traditions is a great way to stay connected. It’s reasonable to shift and change things as the kids get older. That said, don’t give up on traditions just because of emotional storms. Teens need to know that they are still part of a family. They may not be grateful at the time, but it’s still important to hang on to the rituals and traditions that make your family unique. When holiday festivities send everyone 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 much longer.

Creating positive emotional memories

  • 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 traditions that generate 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.
  • Don’t aim for perfection. A family tradition doesn’t have to be a heavy lift laden with high expectations. Indeed, often the most memorable traditions are the most simple, the most hilarious, and the ones where we feel the most ease.
  • 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 nurture a sense of family identity and remind kids that holidays aren’t just about presents. These traditions can be within your home or out in the community.
  • 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 our kids grow up we may need to modify and shift family traditions to make sure they are still a good fit. We may also need to flex our expectations depending upon context. Rituals are an invitation to be flexible and creative – not another yardstick to measure our parenting by.
  • Be gentle with yourself. There is no secret to creating perfect emotional memories. 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 family the most. Take the long view and stay connected with your kids during the busy holiday season.