Between the frenzy of school and family parties, shopping, wrapping, cooking, traveling…it’s easy to lose the spirit of the holidays during this busy time. The holiday season provides plenty of time to spend with family and friends. But, as many parents know, it can be difficult to maintain family unity and to engage older children in family activities and events. Here are some tips to keep the “family” in your holidays and make the best use of time off with the kids.

Make a plan and discuss it together
Discuss the holiday calendar as a family so everyone knows what to expect. If your kids are off school for two weeks, be sure they know how that time will be spent. Older children will likely want to plan activities with their friends, so make an effort to build this into the family calendar.  Be upfront about what events may be appropriate to include your child’s friends and which are family-only. Be flexible, where possible, to allow your children time with others.

Don’t rely on TV and the Internet to be your babysitter
Don’t leave children home unattended without supervision throughout the holiday break if you can help it. If you must work, plan play dates, adult-supervised get-togethers and activities for children with others.

Discuss school work and projects early
Even though many schools take a week or two off from class, it doesn’t mean that special projects and homework aren’t expected during this time. Be sure you help your children plan for completion of these projects. Check in throughout their time of off to monitor progress – nothing’s worse than realizing the night before school starts again that your child has a report due that fell through the cracks.

Maintain consistency
Maintain family routines where possible. If family dinner together is a standard in your household, keep the schedule consistent throughout the holidays. Use this time to discuss upcoming activities, and to engage your children in conversation about how they spent their days. Be consistent about family rules, curfews and expectations. If a rule is worth making, it’s worth enforcing every time – even during the holidays.

Be open to new family traditions
As children grow, it’s often necessary to allow for changes to time-honored family traditions. While the trip to the tree farm and petting zoo may have been wonderful for young children, it may not be appealing to a teen. Look for ways to enhance family traditions so they remain relevant for all. Be open to and flexible about your growing child’s wishes.

Teach the spirit of the season
Holiday break is a perfect time for children to give back. Look for community service activities through their school, church or community. If none are available, perhaps you have an elderly neighbor who could use some help decorating his/her home for the holidays? Perhaps your children could spend a day gift wrapping for a single mom? Maybe grandma could use some help baking for the holidays? Help teach your children the value of community service and to give back, especially at this time of year.

Many families find that starting a family tradition of service to others is a terrific way to strengthen the bond as a family. Consider a day of service project for someone in need, “adopt” a family or a foster child for gift-giving, or volunteer time together at a community shelter or food bank.

Be sensitive to children’s emotions, particularly when divorce is a factor
Children of divorce can feel added stress of juggling two households, multiple extended family get-togethers and time away from both parents. It can be a difficult time for kids of all ages. Help ease this burden through open communication and being flexible, where possible. It’s especially vital that parents who are divorced show respect and sensitivity toward one another during this time. Make a point to talk to your children about activities planned in the other household, expectations and commitments.

Finally, don’t forget to plan some downtime
A schedule overloaded with events is likely to overwhelm everyone, heightening tensions and conflict. Be sure to set aside time for relaxation, and to allow children to rest and enjoy being home. Family game night, an evening of movies and popcorn on the couch or an afternoon hike can be great ways to ease the stress of this busy time and ensure that the spirit of the season prevails.

By Gabriel Welcher & Jean Mirando. Gabriel Welcher and Jean Mirando are Parent Project Facilitators at John Muir Health Behavioral Health Center, which provides a full range of inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services for patients of all ages. For more information, call 925-674-4100. To learn more about classes and events at John Muir Health, call 925-941-7900 or go online at www.johnmuirhealth.com/classes.