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Smooth Sailing For Family Visits

The holiday season kicks off in just over a week, bringing with it a flurry of trips to friends' and relatives' homes.

If you're a parent, those trips — with the kids in tow — can make an already stressful time of the year even tougher. How can you avoid the angst and chaos? Sissy Biggers, contributor to Better Homes and Gardens Online, gave some advice on The Early Show for how to cope with your kids over the holidays, and even instill some good habits and manners along the way.

Biggers says different age groups of children pose different challenges, and there are unique solutions for each.

Terrifying Toddlers

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A teetering toddler in a non-childproof house is really unnerving to those who are not used to the under-five set. Parents know their toddler's capacity, but an extended relative does not, and will probably be on edge with a toddler underfoot during the holidays --making mom and dad edgy and nervous as well.

Solutions:

  • Be a hawkeye and stand ready to intervene. Sweep your toddler up before he crashes into the priceless Ming vase on the credenza.
  • Ask if it is alright to move the picture frame and knick-knacks further back on the table.
    Do a childproof check before letting the little one loose. Check for fire screens, the reach from the porta-crib in the guestroom (watch out for long curtains, loose change on bureaus). Busy holiday kitchens should be off limits.
  • Share watch time with an older sibling or a spouse to keep junior in sight at all times.

Checklist for Road Trip:
Bring along toys and comfort items (blankies, emergency pacifier and bottles). Pack a stair gate just as you would a porta crib and be sure and stock the fruits and finger foods that immediately appease a whiner during the tough "bewitching hour" of the day. Keep something up your sleeve for a tough moment. A Barbie bribe can work wonders.

Tricky Teens

Parents of teens are used to the sneer of adolescence. They know how to pick battles and let certain behaviors and responses slide off their backs at home. But, your teen's responses might be a shock for those who have not spent time around the kids — suddenly becoming a reflection your own parenting as much as the teen's attitude.

Solutions:

  • Be positive about the visit ahead to foster anticipation rather than defensiveness on the part of your teen. The minute you tell them to curb behavior, it appears in spades.
  • Teens can surprise you with a sudden maturity when friends and family are around during the holidays, since it provides them with an adult audience that is not limited to their parents. Let them express themselves -- as long as it is not offensive to grandmother. They might find a responsive relative or a new friend.
  • A new environment will also give your teen a chance to hear himself speak outside of the context of his own home. They might be shocked by when they hear themselves out loud and curb their language instinctively.
  • Use the opportunity of being surrounded by family and friends as a shared experience on which the whole family can relate and learn -- and laugh.

Checklist for Road Trip:
Don't pack the whole Nintendo set, but allow your teen to bring a portable Game Boy or other hand-held electronic distraction which, as agreed ahead of time, can be used x-amount of hours during the day. Let the teen pick a DVD to bring as a house gift to share with relatives. Hey, even granddad might love "Bring it On!" A fresh edition of Monopoly or another classic board game or a jig saw puzzle (1,500 pieces will keep everyone distracted) are intergenerational activities. Besides, the teens seem to be the best at any games, so it gives them a chance to showboat.

College Kids Coming Home Again

Kids temporarily reentering the family after months of independence may bring home a new set of habits, hairdos, or a radically different lifestyle. The college student may forget they ever lived in a home environment, let alone belonged to a family unit, and now come and go at all hours, leaving a mess behind, and expect to be catered to or resist attending family functions all together. Besides, they want to see their friends.

Solution:

  • Be proactive and try to anticipate the reentry problems and do something about them before they occur. Ask, "What do you think is reasonable for us to expect of you while you're home?" A child of this age is more likely to cooperate when responsibilities are self-defined rather than imposed.
  • Don't insist, for example, that the child's bedroom be kept neat, and that he or she always clean up messes made in the kitchen. Instead, try to realize that your collegian will probably be more cooperative about common areas like the kitchen if you agree that the bedroom is his or her business, not yours.
  • Offer a list of family events and work out logistical deadlines as an expression of respect for them and the invitation at hand. This will go much further than expecting her to "come around" or nagging her to attend "because you want her to." As a parent is important to be realistic about what functions are a command performance.
  • Be as tolerant and accepting as you can, remembering that lifestyle experiments are a part of the college experience of breaking away and finding an independent identity. Sooner or later, your child will decide what is right for him. By that time, even if some of those changes are permanent, you'll have had a chance to get used to the idea and to reflect on what's really important: respect and unconditional love.

The Thank-You Notes

It's never too early, or too late, to teach your children to write thank-you notes. Holiday time is a great time to start. A variety of thank you cards on the table will span the different ages and abilities and prompt the talking points.

With younger kids, turn the task into a fun project. Bring along rubber stamps, paper punches, decorating supplies (markers, glitter, stickers, ribbon, and blank card stock) or pick up some stationary while traveling and have the kids create them while they are there. As children gain language skills they can dictate the notes to you. Use your child's interests to motivate her or him. If she loves crayons, she can write with them.

If you're trying to get your teen to get in the habit of writing thank you notes, try these tips: On the way home or after the guests have left presents, discuss a good time to work on the notes and mark the day on the family calendar. You may also add incentive by promising that's the evening you'll go to the movies together -- as long as the thank-you notes are completed. It is important to ease the children into letter writing, even if it can't be accomplished in one sitting.

If your college kids haven't gotten into the habit already, it's not too late to give them a nudge into writing thank-you's. Presumably they have access to stationary and stamps. If you aren't sure, tuck some in their bag before they return and clip the appropriate address to the card. (If your handwriting is on the envelope, chances are it will never be sent.)

Finally, let your older child respond via email. It can be especially effective for older relatives who are entering the email generation, and would delight in receiving an online e-card.