Dr Sarah Mundy is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and author of Parenting Through Stories. Sarah has worked with children and families for over 20 years and is mum to three children, including a pre-schooler.
Parenting Through Stories is an approach to help young children make sense of their experiences, particularly those that they, and their parents, find hard to manage. It comprises a series of interactive children’s stories – Bartley’s Books – and a Parenting Handbook.
The stories consider separation anxiety, bedtime routines, tricky behaviour, healthy eating, potty training and the arrival of a new sibling – all perfectly normal experiences in the early years but often challenging ones. The accompanying Parenting Handbook explains the theory behind Bartley’s Books and provides helpful advice for parents to support their young children’s emotional and behavioural development.
As you look at your little one’s wide eyes when they open their stocking, believing that Father Christmas has been, you will know how magical Christmas feels to them. But it’s a fallacy that Christmas is just a time of cheer, particularly for adults – in fact it’s the most likely time of year for families to experience conflict.
There are so many pressures on us over the festive season. Some of these may be relieved this year – those trickier family members may not be coming, you will have fewer costumes to make and less cakes to bake. However, you may also miss close (and helpful) family and friends as well as some enjoyable traditions that have been part of your Christmas for many years.
This blog provides some ideas on how to reduce stress over Christmas and how to feel confident in managing conflict when it arises.
Our childhood memories of Christmas are often rose-tinted – images etched into our minds as the most wondrous day of the year. It’s not surprising therefore that so many parents’ feel the need to get Christmas “right” for their children (not helped by glossy Social Media images). This can lead to us placing undue pressure on ourselves and forgetting our own needs.
Self-care involves both the body and mind. Scheduling in time to relax, be outside and sleep (often the first thing to go out of the window) is hugely important. Laughter is a great tonic to stress so try to connect with friends, even if you can only do this virtually at the moment.
How you view Christmas is also important. Aiming for perfection, which we often do as parents, is unachievable and always ends in disappointment (have a look at my recent blog on why being good enough is good enough – https://bit.ly/2IHutU4). I think of Christmas a bit like a birth plan – the big day is unlikely to go exactly as we hoped!
Yes, it’s important to be prepared as that, in itself, reduces stress, but try to manage your expectations around the day itself. I always advocate substituting the word “should” for “could”. Just changing your language can reduce stress – have a look at this brilliant TedTalk for why “should storms” are so unhelpful https://bit.ly/3gNkWHm
Think about what your children would prefer – everything perfect with a stressed parent or a calm and relaxing time with the family (with a few things forgotten)? Ask yourself – have you ever not been ready in the past? If you have missed something, has it really been that bad?
Christmas is going to happen, and you are going to do your best – stressing about what else you could have done is not going to help you along the way…and there’s always next year, and the next!
We all have ideas about what Christmas looks like based on our own experiences as a child, and this is often very different between partners. My family embraced everything about Christmas whereas I don’t know if my partner’s family even noticed it going by!
This year may be a good time to consider what you want your family Christmas to be like. With less influence from extended family why not talk to each other about which parts of Christmas are most important for you and how you are going to make sure that they are on the agenda. There does need to be compromise but if you’re both singing from the same carol sheet the day is likely to go much more smoothly.
Try to share the load and prepare together. This year my partner has (just about) agreed to help me with present buying. Whilst there are grumbles about it being a chore it has helped us work together and relieved the pressure from me. It does have to be give and take though and I am aware that it will never be fully shared due to the different levels of importance we place on Christmas. And that’s OK!
When excitement builds children can struggle to manage their feelings and behaviours. This may be especially true this year when children have had much less interaction and stimulation than normal. Christmas may be the first truly exciting prospect for them (and you) in what has been a particularly hard time.
Whilst it’s lovely seeing a little one full of seasonal joy, there are times that it gets too much, affects their sleep and increases the chance of conflict. I’m not suggesting you suppress their fun, just try to integrate calm times along the way. This might include you scheduling in down time or staggering exciting activities over the month. This is also less likely to break the bank, which is tighter for many of us this year.
Structure is so important for all of us. When children know what is happening and when, they feel much more settled. However, routines often fall by the wayside around Christmas. Try to ensure that you stick, as best as you can, to bedtimes and family meals and make sure you get outside as part of your daily routine.
Sweet treats can be a huge part of the build up to Christmas, but sugar is not always our children’s (or our) friend. Try to limit sweet treats at home over the Christmas period if you can.
It’s important that you are clear about what you expect from your child. Set the scene for them about how to manage if they are struggling with their feelings and behaviour (for example, over others’ getting presents). Try to make sure this is reasonable though. When it comes to managing big feelings and behaviours, I think we often expect more of little ones than they are actually capable of.
I heard a lovely idea about how one family sets expectations for Christmas Day. They receive a letter from Father Christmas which is read out in the morning. It says that he is proud of everyone sharing and that he has made sure that things are fair. He also says that some presents were unavailable and sets out some rules (you could add your family rules) for the day. He reminds them that Christmas is about giving and not just receiving – a great way to start the day in a positive way.
When children have something to do, and feel like they are achieving, conflict is less likely to arise. Even young children can be involved in helping with food preparation (does it really matter if the carrots turn out a bit wonky?!) or putting out the presents. Not only will this help them feel included, but it can reduce your load.
So, you have looked after yourself well, worked as a team, staggered the fun, stuck to routines, got your children involved and been clear about expectations. There can’t possibly be any conflict on Christmas Day now can there? Well yes, most probably!
Despite best efforts to diffuse tensions in the build up to Christmas, conflict may still rear its ugly head. Emotions will be running high so we can’t expect children to behave better on Christmas Day than they normally would. In fact, we can probably expect them to behave worse! Before anticipating that everything will run smoothly, have a think back to how previous Christmases have gone (and be realistic about what constitutes the day going well).
When squabbling arises try to take a step back and not let it ruin your day, however irrational it may seem. We need to help children when they are feeling wobbly, particularly when they are little, as they do not have the skills to manage their emotions and behaviours themselves (read more about co-regulation here.)
Have a think about what the conflict is communicating and help your children understand their grievances. Label their feelings for them and try to redirect them in a calm and playful way. Try to remain light-hearted, even if your child’s behaviour is infuriating. The calmer you are the quicker they will become so too.
Try not to get cross when a present doesn’t quite hit the mark and remember that their behaviour is communicating what they are feeling. Once you help them understand this, they will regain composure much more quickly than if they get into trouble.
When you expect at least a bit of conflict, feel confident in managing it, and can move on without a big song and dance (unless it’s “Let It Go” from Frozen), Christmas will be a much more magical day for everyone.
Happy Christmas to you all!