There is no doubt that with all of the expectations around the holidays, things can get kind of crazy. The very time that is supposed to bring families closer together is often accompanied by extra stress, children fighting, awkward extended family dynamics and sometimes tension between spouses.

Sometimes the craziness gets the best of us and family members start to feel disconnected, which leads to all kinds of holiday drama — the very thing we all want to avoid.

To help make sure the holidays are a time where family members feel connected and close, here are some things you can do at home, in the car, during meals and out in the community that not only will create conversation, but also laughter, insight and memories.



If you are traveling distances, instead of automatically plugging into technology, what about giving your kids a limited amount of time with tech stuff? Don't be intimidated by the pushback, and don't expect them to thank you any time in the near future. Get creative and maybe even offer some motivation for participation. For example, for every 30 minutes you play the game, you get X number of minutes with your screen. During the down times, interact with each other by playing some of these games:

* Categories: One person picks a category (Disney movies, popular songs, flavors of soda) and everyone takes turns naming something in that category until someone is stumped. (This person loses, and the winner picks the next category.)

* Going on a picnic: This is a memory game for all ages. The first person starts a story with, "I'm going on a picnic, and I'm going to bring " and then lists an item. The next person says, "I'm going on a picnic, and I'm going to bring " and then lists the first person's item plus a new item. As the story grows and grows, each person repeats the list and adds a new item. The first person who isn't able to correctly list all the items is out! You can keep playing until only one person remains.

* License plate game: Interpret the letters in each license plate you pass. For instance, TMK could stand for "Toasty Miniature Kangaroo."

* People-watching: Find a vehicle that you can watch for a few minutes traveling on the road near you. Make up a story about the people in the car. Answer questions like: What are their names? Where did they come from? Where are they going? Why are they going there? What are they going to do when they get there? The sillier and more detailed the story is, the better!



If you are staying home, here are some things you can do together as a family:

* Plan a walk and play I Spy. When you exercise together, your brain releases endorphins that create "feel good memories" you can all enjoy for years to come. You may walk around the yard, neighborhood, park or find a local hiking trail, but encourage the whole family to come. To keep the kids engaged for the walk (and to keep things playful for the adults), play as many rounds of I Spy as you can. Then keep track of who wins the most I Spy rounds and award them with a special treat when you get home, like hot chocolate, a cookie or maybe watching the movie or show of their choice.

* Lovin' from the oven. Baking goodies for the ones you love is fun, but baking goodies for someone in need or someone who doesn't expect it is even more fun. Plus, this activity teaches the littlest ones in the family that holidays aren't just about receiving, but giving. Choose one or two people, families or organizations you'd like to delight this holiday season. Then, as a family, gather in the kitchen to bake something yummy together and share. Consider giving to an elderly neighbor, a family friend, the staff of a local nonprofit your family supports, etc.

* Table talk: Last, but certainly not least, in an effort to avoid awkward silence at the dinner table with relatives you may not see very often, try a few of these conversation starters:

— What is one way you have helped another person this year?

— Who is someone in your life you're thankful for and why?

— If you could have dinner with anyone (past or present), who would it be and why?

— If you could have a superpower, what would it be and how would you use it?

— What is the most beautiful place you have ever seen?

— What is the hardest thing about being your current age?

It's possible to be in a room or a car full of people who are not interacting fully with each other, especially when routines get thrown to the side and people are tired and cranky. When people feel disconnected and schedules are upside down, chaos reigns. Instead of chaos, plan for what you know is coming, whether it is boredom, difficult conversations or unwanted silence. During the busiest season of the year, these tips may help lessen the drama and help you make memories with family and friends.

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Julie Baumgardner

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at