10 Ways to Own Spring Break Before Spring Break Owns You

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

I love routine.

I love the rhythm of life we enjoy, with church, school and extracurricular activities forming a framework around which we build in waking, sleeping, play time and down time.

My kids thrive when we have a routine. I thrive when we have a routine. The house runs (pretty) smoothly thanks to these rhythms and routines.

Which is why Spring Break can be so very challenging.

Winter is over (at least chronologically if not meteorologically), and the end of the school year is in sight. Excitement is in the air and we don’t always know what to do with our Big Feelings. And in the middle of it all, we have a full week off from school. Not long enough to establish new routines, but too long for the “let’s just play it by ear” we can sometimes get away with on Saturdays.

(Who am I kidding? Even our Saturdays have to follow a routine, starting with Dad making pancakes. But Dad goes to work on Monday! He is not here to make pancakes during the week of Spring Break!)

Its taken me some time, but I have learned a few things that can make or break a week off from school. If you work outside the home, you have likely already arranged childcare. But if your kids are home with you all week, here are a few ways to own spring break—before spring break owns you!

1) You must have a plan. Waking up on Monday morning, kissing my husband goodbye and facing multiple little faces looking at me and asking, “What are we doing now, Mom?” is not the time to think about what the week is going to look like. A few weeks or even days before the break, take time to do some planning. What camps are available and affordable? What discounts can you find? (Kids Bowl Free and Kids Skate Free are two wonderful resources!) What’s happening at your local library, museums, parks and rec, YMCA, etc? The weekend before the break, check the weather for the week. What days can you plan to be outside? What days do you need an inside plan? What groceries do you need for lunches?

2) Get outside! I make it a priority to get the kids out of the house for at least a few hours every day of a break, usually by 10:00 AM. Playgrounds, day hikes, the zoo, bowling, heading to the Seattle Aquarium (which offers free access to foster families), and going to the YMCA and running around on the track are a few of the things we’re doing this week. Kids need to move, and these are some great ways to engage their minds and bodies!

3) Make-ahead meals. I’m a big fan of cooking a few times a week and having things in the freezer that I can just heat up for dinner. This is especially important now that my family has gone almost-vegan (I’m not giving up my half-and-half!) In the past, I could just grab a rotisserie chicken and bagged salad if I didn’t have time to cook, but now I have to be more intentional. I keep vegan stews and soups in the freezer, along with vegan “meatballs” and sandwich patties for last-minute meals. The witching hour is always a challenging time to make dinner. It’s twice as hard when the kids have already been together all day and are tired, cranky and at each other’s throats right around the time I’m making dinner.

4) Give breaks from one another. My kids are each others’ primary playmates. They are just always together, which can be really sweet—and can also mean “too much of a good thing.” For the sake of pacing, I try to find ways to give my kids space from one another during the day. One way we do that is to go to the YMCA, where they are able to play with other kids. Another thing we do each day is 30-minutes of reading/looking at books on their beds. Each child gets 15-30 minutes of “Special Time” (one-on-one time with a parent, which Positive Parenting Solutions calls “Mind/Body/Soul Time”) each day as well. One child gets his Special Time first thing in the morning, as he is almost always the first one awake. Another child always gets her Special Time at bedtime. However you can make it happen, it makes a huge difference to your kids!

5) Coordinate with other caregivers. I am not always able to make this happen, but when I can, it’s great. I coordinate with another mom or two to take turns having each other’s kids over for playdates so that we can each get a little time alone. Sometimes that means I split my kids up and one goes to one friend while the others go to another friend, but however we can make it work, it helps!

6) Involve your spouse if possible. I understand this is not always possible—either you don’t have a spouse or partner, or that person doesn’t have a flexible work schedule. But if you can, talk with your spouse/partner and ask them when they might be able to give you a little extra support. For me, this means my husband goes to work a little later than usual (sometimes an hour later) and he handles all of the morning activities (getting dressed, eating, etc.) before 8:00 AM. It also means that he is “on call” to take a child who is acting out and needs to be separated from the flock for a little reset. (This doesn’t happen often, but we need options when one of our kids is ruining it for everyone else. Sometimes it’s just necessary, unfortunately.) If you’re the one who prepares dinner each night, maybe you could ask your partner to take the lead on one or two dinners this week.

7) Guard some personal time. Guard it as if it were the Holy Grail. You simply cannot expect to burn the candle at both ends and be surrounded by little people who need things from you all the time and not lose your mind. Whether it’s staying in bed reading a little longer than usual while your partner takes care of the morning routine, taking the kids to the YMCA and hitting the track or a yoga class, or putting a movie on for them so you can sit and enjoy a cup of herbal tea, you need to carve out space for yourself to refresh.

8) Put on a movie, for heaven’s sake! We limit screen time in our house. Generally speaking, our kids don’t watch TV on school days. They each get a bit of screen time (ABC Mouse, Friv4School, or PBS Kids Games) at night, if they are all ready for bed before a certain time. But otherwise, we just try really hard to provide other options for them. (They fight us hard on this, FYI. It’s not easy. They are obsessed with screen time and limiting it is a daily battle.) But I believe we are doing them a service by placing strong boundaries around their minds and what goes into them, especially those who are in elementary school. I also believe we are helping them by insisting that they learn how to entertain themselves without screens! (I recommend the book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch, by the way.)

That said… Spring Break is one of the few times in the year when my kids watch a movie pretty much every day. In the afternoons, around 3:00 or so, when we have been on the go having picnics and zoo adventures and bike rides and the like, everyone (including me) needs some down time. I try to time it so that the movie will end around the time when dinner is ready. The point is, buy yourself some down time. Extra screen time during Spring Break is part of what makes it so fun!

9) Keep to your sleep/wake schedule. I know plenty of families in which breaks from school mean kids can stay up late, sleep in late, and just generally roll with things. While I can totally see why a parent would allow that, I’ve come to learn that it simply doesn’t work with my kids. We need to maintain our same night time and morning routines. The kids each have checklists, and they do them whether we are on a break from school or not. If we don’t, it doesn’t take long for the wheels to fall off and the family wagon to go completely off the rails. Again, kids—especially kids who have experienced trauma in their past—thrive when they have regular routines. This is especially true when it comes to sleep schedules!

10) Stay connected with your kids and focus on having FUN! If you have more than one child, finding time for one-on-one connection can be pretty challenging. But it is something that is so very important! When a parent is intentional about giving one-on-one time to each child on a regular basis, sibling strife can be reduced. For a child in foster care or adoption, connecting with their caregiver is so vital. Anything else that might happen in the context of family flows from this connection. Without it, there is no ground for attachment, trust or respect between the child and their caregiver.

For me, this means finding time for each child to have at least fifteen, if not thirty, minutes of one-on-one time every day, even during Spring Break, even when we are all already together most of the day. Reading books together, playing a board game, letting my daughter do my makeup, and playing chase are just some of the things my children choose for “Special Time.” I find that when I don’t make time for this, the sibling rivalry and power struggles between my kids and each other and my kids and me are worse.

There is no way to plan a perfect Spring Break. The kids will fight, your patience will be tested, and everyone will experience some disappointment and exhaustion at some point during the week. The house will never be tidy enough, you’ll feel like you’re going from one mess to the next, and forget about taking on any big projects that week. (I had a few things I had hoped to accomplish during Spring Break this year. I realized on Monday that I had to put that little list in my desk drawer, to be revisited when the kids are back in school.)

That said, these tips are a big part of how we can not merely survive the day, but how we can really find our way to flourishing, even in the strange season of Spring Break.

After all, we need to take measures to own spring break before spring break owns us!

How about you? Do you find Spring Break challenging? What are some ways you are able to make it a positive vacation time?

Do You Know About Cooperative Board Games?

I first learned about cooperative board games a few years back, and I was a little slow on the uptick. Until recent years, I have always been a pretty competitive person. A game without a clear winner? What’s the point in that?!

Now that I have children and routinely face the reality of rabid sibling strife, I totally see the point.

In a cooperative board game, players work together in order to achieve a goal, either winning or losing as a group. As the name suggests, cooperative games stress cooperation over competition. Those playing the game are the team. They either win together or lose together, but either way, they’re all in it together.

Sibling rivalry exists in most families with more than one child. This is a fact. Even the healthiest families often deal with challenging sibling dynamics.

But when children have experienced neglect or trauma, their need for attention and empowerment can be even greater. As we have struggled with significant conflict between siblings—both biological siblings and foster siblings—we have found that playing cooperative games has been a great way to build connections and laugh together minus the competition of traditional board games.

Cooperative games are also a really positive way to connect with your child. While it’s fun to play Candyland or Connect 4 with them, it’s not as much fun for them if they lose. With a cooperative game, they are never the only “loser.”

Here are five of my favorite cooperative games. They are all aimed at younger children, but when we play together as a family, everyone has fun.

  1. Outfoxed. This is my favorite and the one that everyone young and old enjoys. It’s a “whodunit” game where players collect clues and solve a crime. This is something we often give as birthday presents for kids between 5-9, but our four-year-old can totally play it too.
  2. Hoot, Owl, Hoot. This is great for little ones. The game maker recommends it for ages 4-8, but it works for 3-year-olds if they are playing with an adult who can coach them through the play.
  3. Race to the Treasure. I love playing this with all of my kids (ages 4-10). It involves strategy and cooperation, plus it teaches some geometry basics!
  4. Count Your Chickens. This is a great game for kids as little as three that reinforces counting and social skills.
  5. Silly Street. This is a game we love playing at Family Meeting! Everyone playing gets to be silly together. Laughter abounds when Mom and Dad are demonstrating how a kangaroo might do karate or standing like a flamingo. While there is a “winner” in the sense that one person reaches the end of the game first, we keep playing til everyone reaches the end, then we have a dance party!

I absolutely love cooperative games! How about you? Do you have any favorites to share?

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” [Disclaimer Credit: Michael Hyatt]

A Storm is Coming: What to Do When the Honeymoon Ends

[UPDATE: after I wrote this post, I revisited the term “honeymoon period” as the description of the first part of a child’s placement in a new foster home. As I thought about it, I realized how foster-parent-centric that term is, and I wrote another post to explore a better way to describe it. I am not changing the term in this post, because “the honeymoon period” is how most foster parents describe that season, and my goal with this post is to help resource foster parents and prepare them to handle that season well and do right by the kids in their care. That said, I hope going forward we can all be more mindful of how we talk about this season and choose a different word or phrase. Please be sure to read this post as well!]

Your license was finalized a few weeks back, and one week ago yesterday, a social worker showed up at your door with the first child placed in your care. Your months—years!—of dreaming and imagining and fantasizing about what it would be like to be a foster parent are over. A real, live child is in your home, sleeping in the Ikea bed you and your husband assembled together a few short months ago during the licensing process.

And you are tired. You are so. very. tired.

The friends who were so excited about your “journey,” who proclaimed what you were doing was “awesome,” are just a phone call away, but you don’t know what you would say if you called. None of them has ever experienced what you’re going through, and you’re not even sure what you’re allowed to tell them about the child in your care, so you haven’t reached out to any of them since the impromptu shower they graciously threw together a few days before your child arrived. You worked hard to craft that first Facebook post after he came, wanting to share this momentous occasion in your life, but, because of privacy concerns, you are not allowed to post pictures of your child’s face or share his name with your online community.

You are lonely. You are so. very. lonely.

And then, five, six, seven days after he arrived, a shift happened. Whereas it was all unicorns and sunshine at the start—he seemed friendly and congenial when he first arrived, eagerly eating the dinner you served and amiably washing his hands before dinner when you told him to—now a storm is brewing. He’s having temper tantrums several times a day. He is angry about the snacks you’re offering him (“I TOLD YOU I DON’T EAT APPLES THAT AREN’T PEELED!”), and when you told him to take a time out for the way he just spoke to you, he went into his room, slammed the door and emptied the contents of his drawers on the floor and closet, knocking the entire dresser over in the process.

He may have also peed in your shoes.**

He talks nonstop, interrupts you every time you’re on the phone, screams when you tell him it’s time to turn Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles off, refuses to wear the clothes you put in his drawers, and has lied to you at least three times in the past two hours. He bursts into tears at the drop of a hat—loud, long, wailing tears—and has started referring to you as “Mean Mommy” for telling him “no.” This morning he ran away from you in a store, hid from you, and when you aborted your shopping trip and carried him to the car to go home, he waited until you were on the road and then kicked you in the side of the head while screaming, “I’M GONNA MAKE YOU CRASH THIS CAR!”

The honeymoon is over. Reality has hit like a summer storm. The water’s rising and you are drowning.

What are you going to do?

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The end of the “honeymoon period” is a common challenge most foster parents face at some point in time. For some, it can look something like what I’ve just described. As a child begins to settle in to your home, he or she begins to feel more comfortable. (Remember, that’s a good thing!) He feels free to let down his guard and let some of his “big feelings” surface, usually aiming the barrel of his emotional rifle at you. Tantrums, incessant arguing, refusal to cooperate, lying, damaging your property, hitting you, running away, and doing just about anything he can to test the bounds of your commitment to him are marks of a child who is desperate for control of something in his life and determined to find a way to exercise some semblance of power over himself.

In other cases, especially with very young babies, the end of the honeymoon comes when the new foster parent begins to feel the exhaustion that marks parenting little ones added to the emotional exhaustion of caring for a child whose past and future in your life are big, fat question marks. Do you get attached? (Yes!) How attached? (Very!) Will you be devastated if they leave? (Probably! Yes!) This is your first baby—but she’s not your baby. She’s someone else’s baby. You just happen to be the one doing the holding, kissing, tucking, reading to, changing, dropping off at school, picking up from school, teacher-parent-conference-attending, Band-Aid-applying, laundry-washing-and-folding, vomit-wiping and rocking in the middle of the night. Lack of sleep, lack of a predictable schedule, unexpected calls from the social worker, unanswered questions and the lifting of the euphoria of having this new little person placed in your care provide a harsh reality check.

The novelty has worn off and reality is setting in.

Now what?

# # #

As I reflect on some of our experiences with different children who have been placed in our home, I can report that there is good news and bad news. Bad news first: the honeymoon always ends. It may not be terribly dramatic—a slight uptick in “little white lies,” increased bedtime battles, growing acts of defiance when it comes to cooperation with daily tasks. But, in my experience, it’s usually much bigger than that.

Now for the good news: it does get easier. Seasoned foster parents are usually not so caught off-guard when the honeymoon ends. We know it’s coming, we’ve learned to expect it, and we have developed tools for helping ease the transition into this new season of the foster care journey. More good news: getting through the challenging “end of the honeymoon period” can be a wonderful opportunity to build trust with your foster child and model healthy coping skills.

Here are five suggestions for all of us to consider when the honeymoon ends.

First, make sure to take breaks and get space daily, starting on day one of a new child’s placement with you. I spoke with a new foster mom recently, and she was weary. After being so excited to welcome her little one in, a few weeks later she sounded irritable and frustrated. I asked her about their schedule and routine and learned that she had only been apart from her new foster son for a few hours one day the previous week. He had not yet started back to school from his break, so they had been together day in and day out. She wanted to bond with him, which is a good thing, but she had not come up with a plan for making sure she had pockets of time to regroup once he arrived. The result was that she had reached a point where just about everything he did, said and asked grated on her last nerve. The child, sensing her frustration and edginess, had upped the ante on his frustrating behaviors. They had entered a cycle that all of us have been in at some point.

Bottom line is, you need breaks from each other. The child needs a break from you and you need a break from him. I say from time to time, “It’s good for me to have opportunities to miss my kids!” The opposite is true as well. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” isn’t just true for romantic relationships—it’s true for the parent/child relationship as well.

Plan for your breaks. Build them in to your schedule. Remember all those friends who said to let them know if you needed anything or if they could help in any way? Schedule them to come hold the baby so you can go to the store by yourself or take a nap. Ask them to take your older foster child for a playdate at the playground. Sign up for a membership at the YMCA and start using their drop-in child care so you can go to yoga, run on the track, or just sit in the hot tub and take a shower without anyone knocking on the door. (I’ve even been known to bring a book to the Y, sign my children in and then sit in the lobby reading.)

My point is, don’t wait until you reach the point of feeling irritable and frustrated: plan for the fact that you will, and make arrangements to have regular breaks/space from your child so that both of you can experience the joy of seeing each other again a couple of hours later.

(A word to those who advocate 24/7 togetherness at the start in order to facilitate the bonding process: I believe whole-heartedly in the importance of bonding and attaching, and I agree that being together as much as possible is vital to that process. When we had our first child, who was school-aged, he stayed home with me for two weeks before enrolling in school. That time was invaluable for us, but even during that time, I needed daily space. I needed room to process, catch up, and take care of myself. At the time, I didn’t realize how important that was, and I came dangerously close to burning out. The effect on my health, marriage, and more was stark. That’s why I’m so passionate about building in time for breaks at the very start not. In doing so, I am shoring myself up for the long haul and warding off the inevitable burnout that so many foster parents face. I also find that the process of leaving-and-coming-back is key to them learning that they can count on me to always come back. Whether I drop them at the Y childcare on Day Two of their placement with us or they stay with my spouse while I go out by myself for a couple of hours, while initial separation might be confusing and even traumatic, over time, it contributes to a child’s inner-ability to learn to trust, which is part of his emotional healing process.)

Second, make sure you are spending at least fifteen minutes of quality, uninterrupted play time with your foster child every day. If you can do it twice a day, even better.I am a big, big fan of Positive Parenting Solutions, and one of the things its founder, Amy McCready, emphasizes over and over is the importance of giving quality, undivided, fun attention to your children on a daily basis. (Amy is not the only one who reinforces this practice. I have seen it repeated in many parenting books and seminars. I just really love her explanation for why it’s so effective!) Doing this tells your foster child they are important to you, you see them, you hear them, you care about what they want, etc. In Amy’s words, it “fills their emotional needs basket” in a positive way, making them less likely (over time) to try to get attention in negative ways.

Let me take a moment and emphasize how huge this is for a child in foster care. When just about every choice has been taken away from them, when they have had no say over any aspect of their lives—where they live, what bed they sleep in, who tucks them in at night, what food is on the breakfast table, even what clothes and shoes are in their new closet—having built-in, daily opportunities to have a say in the matter, to feel a sense of control in their lives, is enormously important and goes a long way toward helping them return to calm when the storms hit.

In our house, we call it “Special Time.” Special time is one-on-one time between a parent and a child when the child gets to choose the activity and the parent is fully engaged. For us, it might be playing a board game, playing LEGOs, playing a video game together, doing each other’s make up and/or nails, playing school, taking allowance money to the store to buy something, baking cookies, reading extra books at bedtime, etc. Once in a while, we have “Extra Special Time,” when either my husband or I take one child out for a few hours of something fun, like a trip to an amusement park or out to lunch at a favorite restaurant.

We do this regularly with our children, and when we have a foster child join our family, whether they are with us for a week or a year, they are part of the Special Time schedule as well. And they love it.

Doing this does not eliminate the difficulty of the end of the honeymoon period, but it can shorten its effects dramatically.

The third suggestion I have for foster parents emerging from the honeymoon period is to identify at least two people you can text or call when things are hard. These are friends who are emotionally solid and are able to be stable when you are falling apart. In an ideal world, they are experienced foster parents, but if that’s not possible, at least having someone with some knowledge/experience of the effects of trauma on a child is very helpful. (One of my go-to friends early on was a high school guidance counselor. She had all sorts of insight into the context I was in when I would call or text her.) They are also friends who are gracious enough not to hold it against you that, in this season, it really is about you and your needs every time you contact them. Eventually things will get better and your friendship will go back to being one of give and take. But not today. Not right now. Right now, you need them to give emotional support and cheer you on—and you need to take it.

The fourth thing I suggest is that you brush up on your constructive (i.e. positive) parenting skills. As I’ve already said, I am a huge believer in Positive Parenting Solutions, because I have seen it work over and over again in our home with many children who have come and gone. Based in the premise that every child needs to feel a sense of power and a sense of belonging and significance, PPS is a system of parenting tools aimed at those ends. And if every child needs to feel empowered and significant, how much more so does a child whose entire world has been ripped out from under them need those things?

As my husband and I have learned and practiced this parenting style, we have seen so much growth in our relationship with our children. Our joy in parenting both our own children and our foster children has increased exponentially as we have utilized the PPS tools to reduce stress and conflict in our home. Even for those of you who have already raised your own kids and are now entering the world of foster care, I promise you, this program will help you so much. And PPS offers a money-back guarantee if it doesn’t work for you, so you really have nothing to lose in trying it out!*

(There are a number of positive parenting programs out there. I’ve done three of them, and in my experience, Positive Parenting Solutions is by far the best. But whichever one you learn and implement, do whatever you need to—books from the library, free webinars online, etc.— to get some positive parenting tools in your parenting tool box!)

The last recommendation I have for foster parents who are struggling post-honeymoon is to hang in there. Bear with him or her. Don’t give up.

It will get better.

I shared about this at length in this post a few years ago, which is now part of my state’s Caregiver Core Training Curriculum for every foster parent in Washington. I encourage you to read that article, but the gist of it is, when I was at my wit’s end with our first foster son, I reached out to a social worker I knew. She said that around four months in, I would see a difference. And I did. I am so grateful for the advice I got that day, when I was at the end of my rope, physically and emotionally exhausted, and bruised from my foster son’s most recent outburst.

I am glad we did not give up. But it didn’t happen quickly. The first few months were really, really hard, both for our child and for us. But over time, as four months turned to eight months, as eight months turned to a year, as a year turned to several years, we have seen so much growth and healing. And it has been so worth it.

The rhythm of foster parenting is pretty predictable. While it might look different in each family, I have heard from hundreds of foster parents over the years who have shared similar experiences. (For a humorous yet fairly accurate depiction of the end of the honeymoon period, the 2018 movie Instant Family did a good job of addressing it!)

While we can’t avoid the pain of certain aspects of foster parenting, we can certainly get ahead of it and take some steps to prepare ourselves to make the best of it.

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If you have experienced this, either as a foster parent or as a child in foster care, I’d love to hear about it! Please share in the comments or email me!

 

 

*(I’m such a fan of this program that I reached out to its founder and told her I planned to tell everyone I knew about it. She invited me to become an affiliate. Full disclosure, if you use the link here to sign up, I receive a small percentage of the fee.)

** This has not happened to me, but it has happened to several people I know. In fact, the description I’ve shared is a composite of several people’s experiences.