How to Help Your Preschooler Get Through a Family Reunion

For lots of us, summer is a time to reconnect with family far away. Whether it’s a big family reunion, or just a visit to the grandparents, chances are you’ll be visiting some people you haven’t seen in a while this summer. If you’ve got a preschooler at home (who maybe doesn’t really remember these people but is old enough to be expected to engage with them), these visits can be pretty overwhelming.

Our preschoolers haven’t internalized the rules of social etiquette yet. They’re perfectly fine with pretending they’ve gone deaf and, for good measure, turned into a statue when asked to say hello and shake hands. And falling through the floor seems like a pretty good alternative to giving Aunt Mildred a hug. When you put yourself in their shoes, it’s actually perfectly reasonable to feel a little overwhelmed when aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and people’s weird boyfriends start descending one after another speaking in the candy-sweet voices of people who’ve never actually talked to a preschooler.

Some kids can take all this in stride. I’ve seen kids who return hugs, endure sloppy kisses, tell adorable stories about themselves, and join right in with the best of them. But I know lots and lots of others (myself as a kid, and my own kid included) who find all the socializing pretty trying. Which is understandable, but tricky. Because, in situations like these, we parents are faced with a dilemma: insist that our kids follow the rules of etiquette (which may or may not yield results and will probably end it tears), or give in to the reticence and let them stand there stony-faced (which will make them seem rude).

I don’t have a foolproof answer here. But I do have a few tips for handling this kind of situation, based on my experience being that kid, and on my experience being that kid’s mom. So, the first thing is: you can’t force it. If your kid is going to clam up, look down, refuse to shake hands or say hello, there’s really nothing you can do to stop him. So, repeatedly insisting in an angrier and angrier voice that he speak is going to get you nowhere. It’s the same with pleading, negotiating, bribing, etc. And all that stuff is just going to make you look bad in front of your family. So, give all that a rest.

Your fighting chance at bringing a communicative preschooler to a family reunion begins before you ever get there. Even though you talk about Uncle Mortimer all the time, and point out his picture in the photo album, if it’s been a year since your kid has actually been in his presence, he’s basically a stranger.

So, the first thing that needs to happen is that your kid needs to become familiar with the people he’s going to meet. This could happen in a variety of ways. The best one is to video chat with them. Call up Uncle Mortimer (or whoever) on FaceTime or Skype and say hello. Don’t make your kid do it. Just say that you are going to call him up for a little chat. Your child will hear his voice, see his face, get a sense of who he is and what he’s like. And then, when he sees him in real life in a week or so, he won’t feel as overwhelmed.

You can also check in with Uncle Mortimer and any other key relatives that might be eager to meet your child. Explain to them that he’s a little bit slow to warm up and might feel overwhelmed at first. Some relatives might feel sure that that might be true for other relatives, but surely not for them! Explain that it’s true for everyone (he’s young and doesn’t really remember you), but that if they take it slowly and don’t get in his face right away, he’ll warm up in no time.

If there are going to be just too many people to talk to each one, make a game out of learning everyone’s names and faces. Print out pictures of everyone and glue them onto cards. Let your preschooler play with the cards, laying them out on the table and organizing them. Point to each person and say his or her name. See if your child remembers the names. Tell funny stories about each person and try to give a sense of who they are. The goal here is to help your child understand that he will be meeting lots of people, but that they’re not total strangers and they’re friendly.

Next, your child needs to know what’s expected of him. There’s a big difference between saying “Shake hands!  Say hello!” in the moment, and explaining beforehand that that’s something we do. Tell your child that all these people are going to want to say hello to him. Explain that they might want to talk to him and learn about him a little bit. Practice with him by saying something like, “So, if someone asks what kinds of things you like to do, what could you say?” If he doesn’t know, tell him what to say and then practice again. It’s totally fine for these exchanges to be scripted. If all he says is, “I like trucks!” for the whole weekend that’s fine, everyone will think he’s adorable.

When you actually get there, if your child is still feeling too shy to speak, think of some other things he could do to acknowledge his family members without speaking to them. He could wave, he could smile, he could give a high five, anything that lets the other person know that he’s registered their presence. And, if he does that, give him praise and encouragement, rather than voicing your disappointment that he didn’t say anything. He’s more likely to come out of his shell later if he feels like he’s been successful in his initial attempts to reach out.

But, ultimately, the best thing you can do is relax about it. It’s totally fine to tell the other adults that your kid is feeling a little overwhelmed by all the new faces. And if there are a few family members who are offended by this (because they don’t understand that a year is a really, really long time in the life of a preschooler so they expect to be remembered) so be it. And if those offended family members start getting in your kid’s face and insisting he talk to them, it’s totally fine to take your kid on a little walk just the two of you. If you’re anything like me, you could probably use a break too.