The holidays usually play out far smoother in our minds than they do in reality. Visits with Santa, gift exchanges and festive gatherings have the propensity to go horribly awry, especially when we’re dealing with easily overwhelmed little ones. With the added pressures to behave in the midst of so much excitement, it can just pile on more stress – leading us straight to meltdown city.
We asked child psychologist Dr. Vanessa LaPointe (author of Discipline Without Damage: How To Get Your Kids To Behave Without Messing Them Up), for tips on how to keep things on an even keel and actually have fun this holiday season.
- Whenever possible, hold to your routines and try to plan parties and outings around bedtimes, mealtimes, etc. And if you are travelling, emulate as much of your regular routines as you can. For example, if bedtime usually is a bath, storytime, and snuggles, do that at Grandma’s house just as you would at home.
- Create a bit of extra space for behavioural challenges and respond as compassionately as possible. Recognize that this is happening because your child is struggling rather than being naughty. If you can think of “misbehaviour” as just the child’s communication that all is not well and they need your support, you are going to do a much better job of regulating them both in that moment and for all the other moments of the holiday season.
- Don’t be afraid of the word “no” at this time of year if you feel like your children just can’t manage or your family is more generally feeling spent! You are not here in the service of the world around you, but rather in the service of your children so that you can support their growth and development in the best possible way. Of course we have to navigate other obligations and commitments as is socially expected, but just remember that the absolute bottom line must always be the needs of the child over the needs of the world around you.
- Make some sugar cookies! Any activity that engages a child’s sensory systems in a soothing way, and also includes connection time with you, is a good idea! Get your child to mix the ingredients with their hands, roll the dough, squeeze the icing bags, etc. Not only will you have the benefit of regulating your child through connection with you, but you will also have soothed them in terms of their sensory systems.
- Extend a special invitation! When you drop your child at school tomorrow, hand him/her a sealed envelope with an invitation for an outing after school to your favourite haunt. Say nothing else – just invite them to read the note inside before the end of the school day. If you have little ones, surprise them over breakfast with the invitation and turn your day into an adventure in anticipation of your big outing. Time with you = the perfect gift. If you have a child who is a bit anxious sometimes, or who doesn’t do well with surprise changes in routine, give them their special invite two or three days in advance to give them some time for the mental shift needed so they can experience some excitement around this fun activity.
- Time for a literary trip down memory lane! Do you have a favourite Christmas story from your childhood? The Night Before Christmas? The Grinch? Dust off that old book and settle in for some story time. Tell your children your own memories of having that story read to you. Did your parent have a funny voice they used, or a perfectly squishy belly for leaning on as their voice floated over you? Even your older children will probably still love to be read to. As a child, there is something divine about snuggling with your big person and weaving together the strands from a magical story in your imagination. In that embrace of togetherness, your child actually “hears” more than when they read on their own. And furthermore, the “memory” becomes not just words and a story, but a feeling, an experience – something you can smell, hear, and have an emotion to attach to and hold onto in all different parts of your brain. Leaving a new neuro-footprint in your child’s brain through Christmas story-telling – it’s a gift that keeps on giving!
- Always remember that your children really are depending on you to keep them sorted and settled. Maintaining their needs as a priority will allow you to head off the feeling of being at your wit’s end a little more effectively. Let go of your guilt around turning down invitations or backing out of previously confirmed plans in the name of sanity. And if it all feels like it is falling apart, take a deep breath and simply repeat the phrase, “Be gentle with yourself…” By keeping your own internal framework a positive and nurturing one for yourself, you will be in a much better headspace in terms of being what you need to be for your littles.