Christmas can be a magical time for families, creating happy memories that last a lifetime. The holiday season can also be stressful ….
With tinsel and lights, lots of chocolate, disrupted sleep and meal schedules, increased screen-time, less outdoor exercise and, fingers crossed, lots of family all around, the anticipation and excitement can mean things don’t quite go as well as we hoped.
Here are our top tips for Christmas!
The single most important thing you can do to create a happy Christmas is take sufficient care of yourself in the run-up and during the festivities.
How you feel (and behave!) sets the tone for the rest of the family. Children rely on us to regulate not only the physical environment but also the general mood at home. When Christmas becomes stressful for you, it becomes stressful for the kids. And they’re already so excited that it doesn’t take much tension to tip them over the edge.
Think seriously about what little acts of self-care you can do each because you can’t spread joy when you’re trying not to lose your temper ….
“To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.” Mother Theresa
Real-life family Christmases are noisy and messy with a fair amount of chaos. And that’s OK!
Take a moment to consider your expectations for the festive period – how are you expecting Christmas Eve to work, or the Christmas meal, and how are you expecting the kids to behave? If you’re expecting them to go to bed quietly and happily, at more or less the normal time, and settle straight to sleep on 24th December, or expecting them to sit at the table for a long late lunch with some unfamiliar foods, with perfect table manners and lots of polite conversation, it’s probably time to do some re-assessing.
Happiness = Reality – Expectations
Most kids struggle with sprouts because they have double the number of taste buds than adults! If you secretly find sprouts a bit yukky, your children experience them as double-yukky.
And sitting still is not what kids are designed to do. Children under 5 can mostly manage 15 minutes or so, and by the age of 10 they can probably make it to about 40 minutes. But that’s under optimum conditions, and Christmas is lovely but it’s not prime sitting still time.
Maybe let them get down from time to time, with a job to do like fetch a glass of water, or have some quiet activities to engage them at the table. For a few years, we had paper tablecloths and allowed the kids to doodle away while we ate. And, no, they don’t draw on the tablecloth anymore!
Unrealistic expectations are a huge cause of upset at any time of the year. Our expectations – of our children and of ourselves, and of others - are super-complicated, and deep-rooted and personal.
Remember, Christmas is about connection rather than competition or comparison so avoid those perfect Instagram posts or magazine spreads. They’re not truthful and they’re not helpful. Overall, think less is more. Do slightly less and cut yourself some domestic slack so you can enjoy the moments a little more.
Whenever the children do something positive, however small, give some detailed praise about what they did and why it was important.
Receiving small and regular doses of positive attention means children feel safer and happier and are more likely to behave well. Giving regular small doses of positive attention makes parents feel happier too.
In the general mayhem of Christmas, it can be harder to spot positive behaviour simply because there is so much going on!
Think about the behaviours you want to see, and make sure to include lots of things your children already tend to do well, and then ask the children to make a decorated list of Top Behaviours. Once the list is up on the wall or fridge, the game is to spot these behaviours in other family members. You can add stickers or ticks to the list, or add pieces of pasta to a jar, and celebrate reaching the (reasonable!) target with a karaoke carol session or watching The Snowman ….
Sticking with the positive theme, we need to talk about Elves ….
Whether you’re an Elf on the Shelf family, or you have a personal hotline straight to Father Christmas, please prioritise catching positive behaviour rather than reporting misdemeanours. Although threatening to tell Santa may well ‘work’ in the moment to turn a particular behaviour around, it adds a level of tension and worry that will fall out into their behaviour elsewhere sooner or later. And underneath it all, there’s a really important difference between not doing ‘bad’ things to avoid a negative reaction and actively doing the best you can in order to achieve positive attention.
You might want to institute some Kindness Elves who are on the lookout for small random acts of kindness at Christmas time. Help the children draw up a list of RAKs such as making a cup of tea, emptying the dishwasher, reading a story to a sibling, offering to walk the dog or tidying up the shoe rack. Each act is another moment for positive praise, and a glowing report back to the North Pole.
Think ahead about how to approach common tricky situations such as waking even earlier than you thought possible, sharing a bedroom, having a long (and late!) lunch, watching too much or not quite age-appropriate tv or movies, or not getting the ‘right’ present (or wanting the present their sibling received). However angelic your child looked in the nativity play, or however well behaved you know they can be, Christmas is not conducive to best behaviour.
A common hotspot is around hugging and kissing family members and friends.
We must not put pressure on children to give or accept affection to and from other people. If your child feels uncomfortable hugging and kissing family members or friends as a welcome greeting, talk about what they do feel comfortable doing – it might be a high five, or some other gesture, and of course the current Covid concerns mean many of us will be doing the fist or elbow bump anyway. Please don’t apologise for the absence of kissing or hugging, or put it down to being shy.
Once you’ve identified probable problem areas, then it’s time to brainstorm together about possible solutions. When children don’t feel criticised, judged or blamed, they often have some really cool ideas about what they need to do things better.
Getting children to bed on Christmas Eve is always a hotspot as excitement has reached fever pitch, and parents usually have quite a few things left to do for the following day ….
A favourite Christmas hack is giving a Christmas Eve gift of new pyjamas on their pillow to inspire children into bed. Our pyjamas were (allegedly!) sprinkled with extra sleepy magic from the elves ….
Children are naturally excited about receiving at Christmas and many create a long list of wants ….
This is a good chance to talk about the difference between wants and needs so “I want a second bowl of ice-cream but I don’t need it” and “I want to keep playing but I need to go to bed”. It works the same for Christmas gifts.
By the way, if it’s a want, rather than a need, that’s perfectly fine. Talk together about why we want things – is it because we think it will make us happy, or because we feel it will help us look good or fit in (or impress!) others? Again, this is about developing critical thinking and self-awareness.
And it’s really important we talk about giving gifts, as much as receiving them.
It’s much quicker and easier to arrange gifts for family members and friends yourself. Just like it’s much easier to do pretty much anything yourself rather than involve the children …. But this is an ideal opportunity to get children thinking about other people and what they would like to receive. My sons were absolutely confident that everyone wanted Lego. They simply couldn’t comprehend why anyone would prefer something else. It’s taken a few years, but we’ve had many lovely conversations preparing our family gift lists over the years, and they’ve become thoughtful and creative gift-givers.
Talking about giving to others reminds our children that the holidays are just as much about giving as receiving.
And there are many families who need much more than we do and receive much less than we do.
Many families donate to charities at this time of year. As a family, choose a cause that fits with your interests and values. From adopting elephants, buying goats or helping donkeys, or cleaning up the oceans, saving rainforests, helping the homeless and supporting the National Theatre or local arts and community centres, there are literally thousands of ways to contribute.
The last point about gratitude is helping children say thank you for presents they receive, even when it’s not quite what they hoped for. Mostly children learn the art of thanking people by observing us, and by receiving a lovely thank you themselves. Whether they say thank you in the moment, or later by letter or Facetime, lead the way and show them how it’s done!
Christmas is family time – and that means it’s a team effort, and not a solo tour de force!
Obviously someone has to be in overall charge, but insisting on doing everything yourself, or being left to do everything yourself, will leave a whiff (at the very least!) of resentment in the air ….
A report by Mintel in 2017 revealed that 76% of children don’t help out with any chores at home. What happened to the idea of Mothers’ Little Helpers?!
It’s important on many levels that kids learn to pitch in and take their share – and not just at Christmas. You might be surprised by what they can do, with a little positive reinforcement! It’s not just about age of course – but here are a few thoughts to get you started:
Help make beds
Plump cushions on sofas
Pick up toys and books
Put laundry in a basket or washing machine
Help feed pets
4 – 8 years olds
Clearing and setting the table
Dusting, mopping, hoovering
Carrying and putting away shopping
Helping to prepare food
Taking out the rubbish and sorting recycling
Folding and putting away clean clothes
9 - 12 year olds
Washing clothes and dishes
Cooking simple meals
Basic gardening and DIY jobs
Allow children to feel involved in Christmas at home by including them in some decisions about meals and other festive activities, such as choosing the carols to play in the background or laying the table for the Christmas meal – folding napkins or making placecards or lighting candles.
And let them get stuck into the decorations too …. I feel rather hypocritical about this having been busted for re-decorating our tree after my sons had gone to bed! I’m reminded about it every single year ….
You don’t need us to tell you about how transformative some fresh air and exercise can be! How will you fit a fresh air and sunlight boost into the daily festive plans?
It doesn’t have to be a huge Boxing Day hike, and although it’s good to get some sunlight, you can also do a torchlight walk around the block or around the garden. Some kids might find this more fun!
Talking of fun, most children find ‘just’ walking rather boring, so liven it up a bit by playing as you walk – whether that’s 20 questions, I spy, follow the leader, counting coloured cars, or finding particular nature items.
Walking side by side with someone is connecting in a surprisingly strong way. We literally fall into step with each other and start moving rhythmically. It’s not just our steps - our brains start to resonate on similar frequencies and we start to breathe at similar rates. Even a walk with a silent (and grumpy) teenager can be bonding on a deep level …
If you’ve got a hyper-sensitive child, or you find the noise, lights, and smells of Christmas overwhelming yourself, make a retreat for yourselves, and disappear for a few minutes every couple of hours or so.
Make it an oasis of calm with sensory or soothing objects – glitter jars, soft fabrics, favourite smells, and some Rescue Remedy! One family used a pop-up tent as a Chill Zone or you can ‘upcycle’ some Amazon delivery boxes to make the children their own personal Cozy or Calm Corner. Let them plan it, make it, decorate it and fill it. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, because it’s all about ownership and knowing it’s there when you need it.
If you’re out and about, and you’re pretty certain your child won’t make it all the way without some meltdown, set up Time In.
It’s the very opposite of Time Out so it’s time with you, right up close, and it’s obviously completely positive and non-punitive. Agree a secret signal or code beforehand – it might be verbal so “tingle tangle, tingle tangle” or “I think I am banana” or it might be a hand tug or wave – to use the next time you notice your child tipping towards the red zone. Then your child can climb onto your lap or sit right next to you. You might hold them tight, or just hold or stroke their hand. There’s no need to talk, or you might whisper a favourite poem or story to them. And you don’t need to apologise or explain to anyone either. It’s all about providing a safe harbour. Once they are restored a little, they can venture back out.
We wish you all the very best for Christmas and thank you for your support in our first year. We look forward to seeing you in 2022!