Beat the holiday stress
The holidays can put pressure on family relationships - especially if siblings are cooped up together. Here are some ways to avoid holiday conflicts.

Kids and parents alike look forward to the and of the school year. Six weeks of summer holidays seem like just the thing to recharge weary bodies and rejuvenate tired minds. But it is a reality that just a week into the holidays, the novelty wears off and the kids start using the “b” word – bored!

There’s also a lot of extra activity, with busy shopping trips, holiday planning and one party or function after another. Tempers flare and suddenly stress-relief is high on everyone’s Christmas list.

The daily routine that most families follow during the school term provides kids with structure and predictability. Come the holidays, there’s suddenly nothing pressing to be done. Even extramurals end and time looms large.

“Although the holidays provide a welcome break, they’re also disruptive,” says Marianne Louw, a relationship coach from Roodepoort. “Even pleasant changes in routine can eat away at a child’s sense of security. Extra hours need to be filled and siblings also have to spend much more time in each others’ company than they usually do. It’s inevitable that there will be some conflict.”

Sandy Hill, mother of Katelyn (10) and Amy (7), says that different ages and agendas often cause contention. “I have two very different children with very different interests. When they get on its wonderful but when they fight the whole neighbourhood knows about it,” Sandy says.

“Katelyn is into Singstar and Amy, having just learnt to read, can’t manage as well. Amy still plays with her Barbie dolls but Katelyn says she’s too old to play Barbie.” Sandy believes in letting her girls work things out for themselves and only steps in if things get nasty.

Marianne agrees with this approach and says that conflict management and negotiation skills should be taught from an early age. If things get out of hand and you must step in, do so without judgement and in a calm manner.

“When parents get involved, everybody must have a chance to voice their grievances. Mom or Dad should be the facilitator but the kids should come up with solutions,” she says.

Annemi Scheepers, a psychologist from Kempton Park, says that if parents always get involved in sibling flights, they are probably adding fuel to the fire.

“Watch who you constantly shout at,” warns Annemi. “It’s unlikely that the same child is to blame every time. If you see things getting out of control, ask that child to help you in the kitchen or suggest he take a few toys into your room and play there without the sibling for a while.”

In conflict situations, our best line of defence is an action plan for all holiday scenarios. Here are some ways to diffuse situations before they get out of control:

Scenario #1 - Kids home while parents work

Children have far more holiday time than their parents and working moms and dads may experience guilty feelings at not being around. “It’s just a part of life,” says Annemi. “Know you are doing what is best for your family. If you stay positive, so will the children.”


Whatever your personal situation, always make sure your children are responsibly supervised. Preteens cannot be responsible for younger siblings and if you do leave your children in the care of a teenager, make sure ground rules are set and the person is a responsible one.

Au pairs and students sometimes advertise for holiday work. They provide care and stimulation which makes the holidays more fun. Ask a friend or family member to club in with you to bring costs down and alternate houses a few times per week.

Your employer may be willing to allow you or your husband some flexi-hours over the holidays so you may be able to divide the responsibilities between you and one parent can be home at all times, or for part of the day. Enlist the help of family. Trade weekday hours for evenings or weekend hours.

Another alternative if you have an extended family with uncles and aunts or friends and neighbours close by, is for each adult (you’ll only need five) to ask for one day off per week during the holidays and do something with all the children.


Kids often pounce on parents the moment they walk in the door with a string of “He said”, “She did”
complaints. After a busy day at the office, nobody feels like dealing with these. “Set ground rules,” says Marianne.

“When Mom or Dad arrives home, they’re allowed 20 minutes of peace and quiet. Often this is enough to let most of the petty stuff subside.” If you must get involved later, give all parties an equal opportunity to talk. “Try to steer their minds in a positive direction,” she adds. “If possible, be proactive in asking for positive information, like ‘What did you do today that you enjoyed’?”

Things to do

Make sure the kids have a good supply of paper, kokis, pens, scissors, glue and glitter for passing the time. Blocks and books are also good choices. If you are going to get DVDs for them to watch while you’re not at home, be vigilant about what you select. If there’s a lot of wrestling and fighting, they tend to act it out.

Scenario #2 - Crowded house

Getting together with family is part of the holidays and it can double or even triple the number of kids under one roof. In situations like these, older kids often do their own thing. If the kids are younger, it is best for the adults to plan some outings. Make sure children pitch in with chores. Alternate who watches the kids and have some child-free time of your own.

Stay sane

Marianne suggests a good talk with everybody to set ground rules at the start. “Make it clear that the rules apply to everyone and there will be no exceptions,” she says. “These should include rules about physical territory ... Simone will be sleeping in Kayla’s room for the next two weeks so the room belongs to both and everyone will share toys and chores.”

Phrase the rules in positive ways like: “Would you help me by packing away toys before you go to bed?”

Marianne also advises setting some routine especially around mealtimes. “Set times for these or you may find yourself making lunch at one o’clock and again at two when another crowd arrives. This must also apply to the adults in the house!”

Scenario #3 - Home for the holidays

Some families spend the Christmas holidays together at home. Everybody under one roof with plenty of time on their hands can cause tension and stress levels are bound to escalate.

Annemi says that parents can set the tone for a positive experience. “If you are grumpy and edgy about having the kids around all day it will rub off on them. You have the power to make the experience a positive one.”


Don’t get involved too quickly but tell the children to work it out or you will have to step in. If the bickering continues and escalates, Annemi suggests sending each child to their own room for a while. “Time apart is often all that is needed,” she says. “They’ll find something else to do and the fight is forgotten.”

Also, watch what causes these fights. Older siblings may want to dictate what gets played or watched. If this is the case, make a roster and give each child a few hours each day to decide what gets done.

Things to do

Shopping centres, church groups and your local library provide holiday programmes for children, especially over the Christmas season. These give everyone a welcome break. Let your children invite friends along to make the day a more memorable one. If you do plan a special outing and your child wants to invite a friend, it’s best if each child in the family has a friend.

Helping out is another great boredom buster. Ask your local municipality, zoo or oceanarium about any clean-ups or volunteer programmes scheduled for the holidays. Older children like to feel part of a group and be proactive for the environment.

Don’t try to be supermom and feel pressurised into doing something everyday. Kids need to learn how to entertain themselves without being constantly spoon-fed. Over-scheduling leaves everyone exhausted and is tough on you financially at a time of the year when there are extra bills.

“Simply spending an hour together in the park or reading a book together can be fun for both of you,” says Annemi. Divorced parents need to guard against trying to out-do each other with expensive outings when it’s their turn with the children.

Scenario #4 - Away on holiday

Going away for the summer holidays is a special time and gives families a chance to reconnect. Talk to your child about the upcoming holiday and discuss together what you would like to do. Visit the library or look on the Internet for things to do in the area. The magic of anticipation and excitement will help to ease any worries your child may have.

The car trip

When kids are cooped up in a confined space there’s bound to be conflict! Anticipate the fighting and set rules before you leave: no shouting in the car and everyone keeps their hands to themselves. Stop regularly to give everyone a break.

Travel prepared! Pack a bag without them knowing and bring out things to do as needed. Include:

  • Reuseable sticker books
  • Small magnetic board games like draughts or snakes and ladders.
  • Books-on-tape or CD. Libraries sometimes lend these out. Everyone can listen
    through the car’s sound system, or the children can use a portable CD player
    with earphones.
  • Pipe-cleaners aren’t messy and make all sorts of interesting things!
  • A portable DVD player can wile away time but try to limit it to only two to three hours into the trip.
  • Handheld electronic games. Make sure the sound can be turned off or the unit can take earphones!
  • Pillows for weary heads.
  • A few snacks and fruit juice – no fizzy coldrinks or energy drinks!

Also allow each child to pack a “car bag”. Select a small backpack and tell them to fill it with things they would like to do on the road. Another alternative is to hang a shoe-bag on the back of the front seat and stuff each pocket with things to do.

There’s no harm in using a small bribe for good behavior in the car. A disposable camera and scrapbook for older children to remember the holiday is a great incentive. For younger children try a bucket and spade, goggles, flippers or a compass.

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