Claire Burgess, Head of Research, Consultancy & Training
Katie Crouch, Early Years Consultant
Christmas Day is the one day of the year which can be the most exciting day but also one of the most stressful. We all want the festive period to be one of fun, happiness and just like we see in the movies… however it doesn’t always turn out that way! In the same way that we are writing lists to make sure that we don’t forget anything and to help us to be fully prepared, we need to think about how we are preparing our children. We often think that children will just accept the changes and surprises (which can actually translate into shock for children) that the festive period can bring, but, very often, it can have the opposite effect to what we had planned.
The build up to Christmas starts early and the hype can be seen everywhere from nursery or school with parties, nativities and being off timetable, to being on the television and in shops. It is not therefore surprising that when children get to the 25th December it can all be too much for them and, as a result, their behaviour is not always as positive as we would like.
Your children will need you to guide them through Christmas and the changes that it brings, in the same way you would if you were going on holiday or moving house etc. Any big event in our lives (and Christmas Day would be classed as one of those for children) needs to be thought about and planned for.
Tip 1: Involve, but don’t overwhelm
As adults, we can often find the traditions of Christmas confusing and overwhelming. This is no different for children. Give children opportunities to explore traditions in a way which is appropriate to their age and level of understanding. For example you could use a calming craft activity to make a few Christmas cards for special people. Children enjoy having opportunities to connect with you, so family activities can be hugely beneficial. Another idea could be to make paper chains together and use these to decorate part of your home, or to bake food which they can give as presents.
It is also important to follow your normal routines and have conversations regarding these daily activities. This helps children to find a balance between excitement for Christmas and your usual everyday life. Having a timeline towards Christmas also helps children to sequence how many days are remaining until Christmas day. This prevents children from waking up expecting Christmas each day and starting the day confused and disappointed.
Tip 2: Explore expectations
You may need to explore your children’s expectations of Christmas and presents, by talking to them about aspects which you normally find stressful when it gets to the actual day. For example, when your children are writing their lists to Father Christmas, talk to them about what they are asking for, if it is not going to be possible for Father Christmas to deliver some of the specifics on the list then you need to explain this at the time. It might feel difficult, but if you are setting the expectations at this stage it helps to avoid the disappointment and the ‘present-related sulks’. You can come up with creative ways to explain this from “Father Christmas not having enough space on the sleigh” or that “the elves might not have time to make the toy in time”. It will be a greater challenge to give an explanation on Christmas Day as to why the present on their list hasn’t arrived than it will be in advance.
Tip 3: Managing mealtimes
Children are often tired and overwhelmed once they get to Christmas day and this will only impact on behaviour. Think about the day and what you have planned. Are you expecting too much from the children on the day? For example, do you have an extended lunch that means children need to be sitting at the table for longer than normal or that starts later than the usual lunchtime for the children? If so, is this a realistic expectation? Does this really need to happen or is this just going to create an unnecessary stress for all concerned? Think about alternative solutions to this, for example, could the children eat at their normal time but get down from the table before the adults if they are getting restless.
Children can often snack over the Christmas period. It may be helpful to have several choices of healthy snacks nearby. For example, humus and vegetable fingers which may be better than the potential impact of more sugary snacks. Having easy ‘go to’ snacks will also prevent you from having to prepare snacks at the same time as cooking a big meal. Be careful not to overload your child’s plate at special mealtimes. Children who eat little and often will usually require less food during mealtimes, so big platefuls may feel overwhelming and off putting.
You might want to consider keeping one or two presents to one side for longer mealtimes, so your child/ren can have a present to open and explore when they have finished eating. This means that they can then play with these whilst you continue to enjoy your Christmas lunch in relative peace and quiet.
Tip 4: Go out and about
The majority of Christmas activities traditionally take place indoors. This can be in an environment which may feel busy due to decorations and people. The heating and darker winter evenings can sometimes cause a sense of ‘cabin fever’ and being penned in. Wrapping up warm and going out for a walk will help you and your child to burn off some energy from the Christmas food, whilst giving you access to fresh, crisp winter air. This walking motion and change of environment can help your child to begin to soothe any over stimulation and helps to reduce stress levels. Walking with your children gives you the opportunity to discuss what they liked or didn’t like about their experiences that day. Outdoor exercise also allows you to connect and spend some time together.
Tip 5: Leave a space
Christmas decorations and lights can be lovely, but they can also be overwhelming for some children. It is a good idea to leave a room in your house undecorated and as normal as possible. This will give your children a space to go to when it may all feel too much. The ‘normal’ space helps to calm the senses and also provides a quiet space where you can go to get away from potentially tense family situations. Family gatherings can usually centre around one or two rooms; having a calming space outside of this can be a useful place of sanctuary and solitude should you or your children require it. Spending time in this room before going to bed can also enable children to feel calmer and more relaxed therefore preparing them for a good night’s sleep.
Tip 6: Giving back
In the build up to Christmas day think about setting your children the challenge of sorting through their old toys, teddies and clothes. Not only does this give you the opportunity to create space for new toys and presents which may arrive over the Christmas period, but it also helps your children to think about recycling and reuse. Sorting through old favourites, which the children no longer want, can be a bonding and learning task to share together. It is a wonderful chance to share memories of play with these toys, or occasions where special outfits may have been worn. You could also see if your local hospital, hospice, refuge or charity shop would accept donations.
Tip 7: It is OK not to hug or kiss
Asking, or expecting, children to hug or kiss with unfamiliar adults can be stressful and confusing for young children. As adults, we wouldn’t generally hug or kiss people we don’t know very well and we are keen to make sure that our children are aware of ‘stranger danger’. In this respect we wouldn’t force our children to hug, kiss or talk to strangers, yet we often have this expectation when it comes to family members who the child may not have a great deal of contact with. This can send children conflicting messages about keeping themselves safe and having power, self-confidence and awareness about their own bodies. Carrying out relaxing activities with unfamiliar adult relatives can give children the opportunity to get to know and begin to bond with grown-ups on their own terms.
Tip 8: Maintain routines
Children need consistency. This means, wherever possible, waking, eating and sleeping at the same time each day. If children have a set routine before bed, it is important that this is maintained over the Christmas period in order to ensure that children’s sleep patterns are not affected. It can be difficult to leave events early to ensure that children can maintain their routines, but without doing so there is a risk that the children will experience unsettled sleep patterns which may result in them displaying uncharacteristic behaviours due to tiredness and confusion. A child who misses a regular mid-day nap may be harder to settle due to over tiredness. An unsettled period where routines are disrupted may lead to complications and stressful bedtimes which could still be present long after the Christmas period is over. Wherever possible, try to plan your Christmas celebrations taking into account your child’s normal daily routine and avoid making too many changes.
Tip 9: Be present
It is also important that you think about yourself on the day. Adults often put a great deal of pressure on Christmas day being ‘perfect’ and this can then lead to us feeling stressed. Children will very quickly pick up on this and will normally respond by displaying behaviours that we would prefer they didn’t. They can also be quite emotional, for example crying or having outbursts for reasons that seem trivial to us, all adding more stress. However, if you are able to recognise that the change in routine on Christmas day and all of the overwhelming feelings (as well as possible tiredness from what is often an early start to the day) contribute to you feeling stressful, it will be possible for you to resolve many of these situations. It could be as simple as just finding some time in the day to sit with your children and play with their new toys and gifts. Do this by looking at the day that you have planned, are there periods during the day when you can all just sit together and have some ‘down time’? If the day is busy from start to finish it is likely that you will all feel overwhelmed.
Christmas is about spending time with family and it should be enjoyable. Over time, children begin to forget many of the gifts they received throughout the years. However, their memories will be filled with the things you did and the experiences you shared. Try to keep things simple and, when preparing for the day, don’t forget to prepare your children too!