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What lessons can I teach my child during the holidays?

It’s the holidays again, a season ripe with opportunities to promote brain development and build independent skills in kids. While it may sound a little extreme, the opportunities are endless and here are some helpful tips.

It's holiday time again, a season ripe with opportunities to promote brain development and build independent skills in kids. What? I know, it seems a little extreme, but it's true! The opportunities are endless. You could help build your child's frontal lobe development by practicing skills like planning meals, deciding the order of food service, keeping calm and sharing, and deciding what to work on first. Just think how much of these skills are used at holiday time. There's meal preparation, waiting to open a gift, and not telling Aunt Lucy that her stuffing was dry! When it comes to promoting brain development, 'tis the season!

The most current research tells us that real-time teaching of social, emotional, and thinking skills is key. Children can better learn and apply knowledge when taught in a regular setting during natural events. What better opportunity to work on controlling one's emotions than the holidays? And, who wouldn't want to improve the way their brain works, especially the frontal lobe.

Why improve your frontal lobe, you ask? Your frontal lobe is the part of your brain that thinks! It is responsible for starting and completing tasks, making decisions, checking and controlling your emotions, deciding what to do first, and deciding what not to do. The stronger your frontal lobe, the better you perform day-to-day. When you think about what you consider your kids' "good" and "bad" days, it likely depends on how well they controlled their behavior and thoughts that day.

But it's not just your frontal lobe that can be enhanced. The holidays are also about being with family and friends. When others gather and are merry, I see the opportunity for social skill instruction and relationship building! We've known that building relationships are important to happiness, but recent research has also shown that social connections actually improve brain functioning. We know that a larger amygdala, the part of your brain associated with emotion, the larger and more complex your social network is likely to be. In addition to the amount of friends, the level of support and depth of relationship may also play a role in protecting against cognitive decline in later years.

In fact, poor relationship skills, for example social isolation and loneliness, have been linked with a higher risk for cognitive decline in adults. Similarly, animal models have even shown poorer growth of brain cells in the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. There was also a higher level of stress hormone in the area of the brain responsible for thinking skills and regulation when animals have less contact with fellow animals.

So, next time you get out the decorations and develop a plan of attack, make a grocery list, stress over the dinner seating chart, or listen to your children scream and cry about a change in plan or lack of sharing, just think. You're developing their frontal lobes, giving them opportunities to develop larger amygdalas, and protecting their thinking skills when they get older…at least that's what I tell myself!

Exactly how do you work on brain skills? Use the PRE-PAIR method as the holidays approach:

Ponder – ask your kids questions, don't tell them! What do you think Grand-mom will ask you when she comes over? What are some polite things we could do? How could you help when we get there? What could happen at dinner? What if the plans change? What should we do? Using this method instead of just explaining things to your children will force them to use their brains! Model the method by asking yourself questions out loud, "How should I set the table? What do I do first? I know, I'll get the plates!"

Review – review the holiday plan with your kids. Prepare them for what you will expect of them and what they should expect for the day. Talk about a plan for what they should do if they don't know what to do or if they feel unhappy. This lowers anxiety and frees up their brain to be able to think!

Excite – Build enthusiasm. Get excited about the food, the friends, the family, and the fun. When kids are happy and excited, they want to learn. This will help them practice the frontal lobe skills mentioned earlier.

PAIR – Pair the holiday event with something fun. Pair your child with a family member or friend around their age. Pair the holidays with a fun craft or game that will help keep your child busy. This helps your child's brain connect the holidays to something positive.

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