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Six Tips for Surviving Your Relatives This Holiday Season

Thanksgiving dinner is the least of it.

It’s all those breakfasts and lunches for the visiting relatives, all those loads of towels and dishes that need to be washed, the messes the visiting kids make and having to be nice 24/7.

Honestly, I don’t know how we all do it over the holidays&mash;with a smile no less—even when the guests are oh-so-annoying, the visiting toddler grinds cracker crumbs into the carpet, the tween refuses to eat anything she’s served and the uncle falls asleep on the couch, snoring loudly.

Maybe it helps to know you’re not alone: AAA reports that millions of people will travel between Thanksgiving and the end of the year, most of them visiting family. That means there are a lot of beleaguered holiday hosts out there.

It’s not easy to be a guest either. I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving we accidentally left my son’s medication (for an ear infection) within reach of my toddler nephew. He and his parents spent several hours in the ER as a result.

Over the holidays, we tend to let down our guard. “Maybe we don’t pay attention as closely because we are catching up with friends and family, and everyone is sleeping less, is more fatigued and, therefore, more accident prone,” says Dr. Alison Tothy, the pediatric ER medical director at Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago and a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Perhaps that’s one reason Dr. Tothy says ER visits for children increase during the holidays.

Be extra vigilant away from home, she suggests. And wash your hands—and the kids’ hands—as much as possible to keep germs at bay. Frankly, I’m glad when guests opt for a local hotel (and so are they, usually, because they can not only score a bargain over the holidays, but also secure their own bathroom).

Of course, I love seeing my family, but it’s exhausting and stressful whether you’re the holiday host or the guest. “I wish the holidays could be more of a vacation than an obligation,” sighed one young married woman flying across the country to visit her husband’s family.

Your mantra: It won’t be perfect.

Not the food. Not the kids’ behavior. Not the adults’ behavior. We’re talking about family, after all. There will be squabbling cousins, know-it-all brothers-in-law, aunts who can’t resist criticizing your cooking and bored teens who make it clear they would rather be anywhere else. Let’s not forget the vegetarians, vegans, and picky eaters who make every meal a challenge.

Never mind what we think gatherings should be like. The reality is young kids are discombobulated by travel, unfamiliar surroundings and too much sugar; grown-ups are discombobulated by travel, overeating and over-drinking. Keeping kids on some semblance of their regular schedule might help, says Dr. Tothy. “Kids thrive on routine and schedule,” she explains.

And especially when divorced and stepfamilies are part of the mix, “Don’t try to force everyone to act like one big happy family,” suggests Dr. David Fassler, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. “Let the kids adjust and adapt at their own pace. You can expect them to be polite, but you can’t make people get along. Either it will happen or it won’t.”

I figure the holiday weekend is a success if we manage to get through it without some relative or another storming off angrily or a child collapsing in tears. Besides suggesting some of the (most annoying) relatives might be more comfortable at a nearby hotel, here are six tried-and-true tips for surviving the relatives this holiday season:

  • Hide the glass animals, especially if there are preschoolers or toddlers in the house. Are the electrical outlets covered? Medications stored high in a cabinet? Cleaning supplies locked up? Even baking ingredients such as vanilla and almond extract can be harmful to young children, as can holiday plants like mistletoe berries or poinsettias.
  • Stock up on apple juice, peanut butter, pasta noodles, and whatever else your young guests are eating these days. Don’t be insulted if they won’t eat the fancy dishes you’ve slaved over. If you are the guest, offer to pick up what your kids can’t survive without. Offer flavored seltzer instead of pop. It won’t stain and doesn’t have sugar. Bring along a children’s cookbook or if you’re hosting, have the ingredients for a favorite recipe your kids like to make and invite all of the children to help prepare a dish. Remember, the important thing is the conversation around the table, not what’s on the plates—or left behind when the meal is done.
  • Create a kids’ hangout area, even if it’s just a portion of the den or living room with toys, a TV and a place to keep their “stuff.” Suggest the kids bring along a favorite movie. If your guests are driving, suggest they bring along favorite pillows, blankets and for the littlest ones, crib sheets, and night lights to make them feel more at home.
  • Get everyone out of the house. No one will get on each other’s nerves as much if they’re not confined to small spaces. Send the gang to the zoo, the local ice-skating rink, children’s museum or playground, if it isn’t too cold. Many local museums offer special holiday activities.
  • Set the ground rules. No food on the couch, no teasing the dog, no disciplining anyone else’s kids. Don’t be shy about asking the kids to help either. Even six-year-olds can make their beds (or roll up their sleeping bags), set the table, or help with cleanup.
  • Leave the emotional baggage at the door. The holidays are not the time to air long-held grievances.

When all else fails, bring out the chocolate Turkeys.

Taking the Kids is copyright (c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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