Imagine that you could wrap all the elements of a happy future for your child into a magical box, tie it with holiday ribbons and slip it under the tree. What would you put inside? Advanced degrees from your alma mater? Wondrous cultural and travel experiences? Outstanding athletic, science, art or musical skills? How about extraordinary leadership skills, perhaps to follow you in the family business? 

That would be beautiful, says Jackie Stephens, CEO of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collier County, Florida. But before we get started on those things, one essential ingredient must go into the box: the comfort in knowing that she is seen, heard, accepted and valued.  

Stephens, a top professional child therapist who also is the mother of five children, says that with the cancellation of family gatherings and treasured holiday activities on top of COVID-19 fears and financial worries, her agency is seeing an increase in crisis situations even in the most nurturing of families. Underlying tension and stress can cause anyone to project non-verbal messages that diminish a child’s self esteem and take the joy out of an otherwise happy moment. She shares 12 simple skills that can help parents avoid those flashpoints, relax into the holidays and be better prepared to begin filling that magical box for the future.

1. No ifs, whens, or buts.

Be very intentional with these powerful words. The world’s happiest phrase, “I love you” can be totally ruined when followed by the word “but.” When we say “I love you but you make me so mad” the child may hear “I love you sometimes, but I don’t love you when you’re making me mad.” Even complimenting an accomplishment can go wrong if it comes with a disclaimer. Instead of “I love you for helping me with this” you could say “I love it that you helped me with this.”

2. Blessed are the clumps and bulges.

Raise your hand if, after watching your child make his bed all by himself for the first time, you sneaked back later for a do-over. We won’t lie —it’s super-hard not to smooth those bumps and fluff the bed up just right. This also applies to kids’ giftwrapping, cookie making, and holiday decorating. On a scale of one to ten, how important are a lopsided gingerbread man or a peculiarly wrapped package compared with the vision of a young face bursting with pride? Zero! 

3. Go ahead: play with your food.

 If food is one of the most pleasant aspects of life, why do some of our most painful childhood memories involve food? What might happen if we eliminate punishment and shame for not liking a certain food, and explore a nutritional alternative that they might love? The truth is, your child is not going to get scurvy if they don’t eat Brussels sprouts.

4. Not a creature was stirring? How sad! 

National Institutes of Health studies have shown that children enjoy eating dishes they have helped to prepare including—gasp! —veggies! Even two year-olds can wash fruit, and they absolutely love to stir ingredients! So what if there’s flour all over the kitchen (and the child) if your five-year-old basks in the glow of your oohs and aahs? 

5.  Channel the immense power of the dinner table. 

Teens are busy humans who are also testing their boundaries, which is exactly when they need to trust that home is the place where it’s safe to be themselves. Mealtime is the worst possible time to criticize, discipline, or rehash arguments. Consider this: when we meet a client for lunch, isn’t it usually to nurture the relationship? And when we join friends for dinner, isn’t the goal to enjoy conversation and laughter, to share news, or to give and receive emotional support?  There’s never been a better time than now to reclaim the lost art of dinner table connectedness.

6. Treat spills with compassion.

What kid doesn’t dread the humiliation of accidentally knocking over a glass of juice? A stain on the tablecloth will be forgotten, but anger in the eyes of a beloved adult sticks in the heart for a long time. 

7. Zoom in – and know when to Zoom out.

You know the drill. Face-to-face online game nights with the family can be so much fun and nurturing. But keep it flexible. Forcing it as a regularly scheduled event instead of a treat could put a guilt trip on someone who may need to watch a movie or do some baking instead.   

8. Support the other parental unit.

Imagine this scenario: one parent turns to the other and says, “I see that you’re exhausted. Why don’t you take a break and I’ll handle bath time (or do the dishes) (or clean up the gingerbread cookie mess). It’s not just the kids who need to be seen, heard and valued!  

9. Get real. 

Honor the truth that this year just can’t be as extravagant as years past. Agree with your partner, family members and friends to keep your gifts to each other thoughtful but modest, to avoid the stress of credit card bills in January. A gift certificate to the spa is wonderful, but who knows? A loving back rub or foot massage at home may be even better. 

10.  Ramp up your acts of kindness.

It’s well known that parents have eyes in back of our heads, but in fact it’s our kids who notice – and mimic – everything we do. Decades of studies prove that our young children want to be just like us. Let them observe your random acts of kindness. Honor their acts of kindness – as simple as a smile, or dropping coins in a street musician’s bucket, or making sandwiches for a homeless person. Involve them now in small philanthropic services so that the joy of sharing becomes a lifelong habit.  

11. Take a nap.

We’re talking to you, Mom and Dad. Take a cue from kindergarten and slip away for a daily fifteen-minute power nap. It’s free, it feels good, and life seems a whole lot calmer when you wake up. 

12. Notice a child in crisis.

During school breaks, child protection advocates such as teachers, childcare workers, coaches and spiritual leaders depend on extra eyes and ears to be aware of children in crisis. If you know of or suspect child abuse, call the national child abuse hotline. Tips are anonymous. 1-800-962-2873.