March break is approaching and for many that means holiday time with the extended family. Getting together with the cousins sounds great at first, but often things go sour and before you know it, the kids are at war. Some one is crying, another is complaining something isn’t fair. Doors slam – toys snatched.
Everyone was so excited to see their cousins and now that it is finally here, it’s a lousy time. We scratch our heads and wonder why the heck we make such an effort to get together if it always turns out like this.
But why? What’s it all about?
In order to understand children and their behaviours we have to see them in the social field where the behaviour is occurring. Your own children have a good sense of the family dynamics at home when it is just their nuclear family. Each child has established their role, place and importance in the family. When you throw in cousins, all the usual dynamics are thrown off kilter. It’s like adding a new ornament to a hanging mobile. A stable system is thrown out of stasis and some kids handle that better than others. If you were together long enough – you would re-establish a new balance, but with short periodic family get together, time doesn’t allow the settling into new patterns before the holiday is over! Only to stir up the calm the next time the families converge.
Perhaps at home, you are the eldest calls who calls all the shots and feels like top dog. Now the cousins arrive and they are a year older. Now you are taking orders instead of giving them. Maybe your baby sister relies on you as a playmate so you feel she loves you, but when her little cousin shows up, she drops you like a stone. Ouch! Worse, with the courage of a partner in crime she may decide its pay back time and devise a way to take you down!
Gender can also come into the equation. My brother Jeff would allow me to play rocket ship with him, but when Jim and John arrived on the scene, I was quickly kicked off the space pad. “Boys rule – girls drool”.
Now your feeling like the marginalized cousin and can’t get in the game – so you get rude, and physical. Discouraged kids misbehave and they are the ones who then get in trouble! A double whammy!
So what is a parent to do?
- Watch for the shift in dynamics so you understand your child’s struggles
- Listen and empathize. They need to feel understood
- Empower them to speak-up respectfully or get a new game started and take matters into their own hands
- Step in and break up cliques and exclusionary games
- Give the “isolate” cousin special time and attention with the adults
- Find special one on one time with a discouraged cousin
- Help them find an activity or game that the others would like to join
- Have a little “pow wow“ with all the cousins and make a plan for the weekend that includes some ground rules for getting along.
- Play is harder for kids than doing defined tasks, so assign jobs – two cousins on dish duty are more likely to laugh and bond
- Be patient – as children age they get more mature at their socialization skills. Don’t cancel a holiday and drift from your family because it’s a tough vacation. Hang in!