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Olympia parent coach offers holiday survival tips for families

The holidays can be a stressful time for families.

Between now and New Year’s Day, we’re booked with school holiday concerts, extended family get-togethers, shopping, tree decorating and all of the other great seasonal activities.

That’s why I turned to parent coach and sleep specialist Emily McMason of Olympia for some advice on how to survive the next four weeks.

McMason is an adjunct faculty member in South Puget Sound Community College’s early childhood education and parent education programs. She also operates a private practice. She and her husband have a 13-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.

McMason grew up in Olympia, has a master’s degree in education from Harvard University, and is a certified Parent Coach through Seattle Pacific University. Learn more about her at her website,

Excerpts from our conversation:

Q: What’s the biggest concern you hear from parents during this time of the year?

A: As parents, we hold such high hopes that the holidays will be filled with joy and fun and be full of surprises. Yet often the experience is the opposite. We’re stressed, kids are overwhelmed, and somebody melts down.

It happens especially when we spend time with relatives we haven’t seen in months, or even a year. Those relatives expect kids to feel connected to them, and the kids don’t remember them very well. ...

Our extended families have different expectations of our kids, and that can be a very difficult path to navigate.

Our stress levels go up, and our kids absolutely anchor themselves to our tension. The more stressed we are, the bigger their responses are. An important way to lower the pressure is to turn off the expectation of being perfect. When kids do struggle, know they’re not trying to misbehave. They’re not trying to manipulate. They’re trying to let you know they’re overwhelmed.

Q: Talk to me about traditions. I still feel guilty about skipping gingerbread houses a couple of years ago.

A: You don’t have to do every event every year. Tradition is really a layering over lots of years. Pick a couple of things this year, and maybe catch some that you miss next year. We care way more than (the kids) do. ...

Remember that fewer commitments, experienced when we are relaxed and can breathe, are much more fun for everyone than rushing from one event to the next.

Also, ask your kids what’s important to them, what they want to do, what tradition they want to start, and what tradition they want to continue. With older children, keep doing those traditions every year, even if they roll their eyes at you. It matters to them, they just don’t think they’re allowed to show it.

Q: What advice do you have for holiday gifts?

A: It’s not about sameness. It’s about meeting each child where they are and what they need.

Gloria DeGaetano (founder and CEO of the Parenting Coach Institute) said that children have five essential needs. Her list inspired me to create a gift-giving guide based on those needs.

For each gift you are considering, ask yourself: Does the gift give us time to spend together? Does this provide the opportunity for quiet solitude? Does this offer a chance to explore the world in a new way? Does it encourage self-expression? Is it an invitation to become part of the community?

If the answer is yes to one of the questions, then it’s a great gift option.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: During the holidays, kids and parents all get especially over scheduled, over extended and over stimulated. Make sure that everyone is getting enough sleep.

The best way to avoid meltdowns at any age is having kids who are well rested. That’s 14-18 hours for infants, 12-15 hours for toddlers, 12 hours for preschoolers, 10 hours for school-age children, 91/2 hours for adolescents, and 8 or more hours for adults.