Parents, manage your own stress levels first this Christmas

Andrea Mara looks at how to maintain festive cheer and a harmonious family, and hears from professionals who say parents need to manage their own stress levels first.

Every December I tell my husband we’re going to have the best Christmas ever. Of course, in reality, there will be broken toys, too much chocolate, fights over the remote, and tears long, long before bedtime.

We spend weeks preparing, and we want to have everything just so, but very often, Christmas morning joy is replaced by afternoon tears. So where does all the peace and goodwill go, and what can we do about it?

Being out of routine is a big factor, says parent coach Aoife Lee. “All year round children are generally in some form of routine, at home and in school, and they cope well when they know what’s happening. We are allowed to change it up a little when the pressure is off, particularly over the Christmas holidays, but when regular bedtimes become late nights — this can cause crankiness the next day.”

All the extra sugar doesn’t help either — I have vivid memories of finding my youngest finishing a second chocolate Santa before breakfast last year. But it’s not so much about avoiding excess as managing it, says psychotherapist Elma Murphy.

“Overindulgence is not an issue for Christmas Day or even for a few days — it is one of the joys of Christmas after all. However, children’s overindulgence needs to be managed by their parents.

“A child is not capable of managing it themselves and conditions and limits need to be set in advance. Access to the chocolate box, additional screen time or later bedtimes should not be at the expense of nutritious food, exercise or sufficient sleep.”

Most of us are not used to spending so much time together, and this can contribute to Christmas crankiness too.

“Being together as a family for the holidays is a great thing,” says Lee, “And we try to fit as much as we can in — visiting family, meeting up with friends, or getting out and about. But it can be all too much for adults and kids, and we start to feel a little on top of one another.”

Visiting people can also lead to stress, says Murphy. “Travelling to other people’s homes can be exciting for children or it can elevate anxiety. If it is the house of a beloved grandparent, then the child will look forward to getting there. If it is a less visited house, introduce them slowly and don’t force them to interact with other children or adults. If the house is not designed for young children, then make your visit a short one for both of your sakes!”

So what can you do to keep the Christmas joy alive? First of all, look at your own stress levels, says Murphy. “There is significant evidence that anxiety can be a contagion and stressed parents can lead to elevated stress levels in their children.

“This can lead to challenging behaviours, which in turn will stress out parents even more. It can be a very useful exercise for parents to take a few minutes to work out what their particular stressors are likely to be over the holidays.”

It could be exhaustion on Christmas Day after spending hours the night before wrapping gifts, she says.

“All of us, including mums and dads, need to identify and plan to eliminate or manage our known stressors ahead of time.”

Secondly, create some structure in your day. “It’s nice when you don’t always have a plan,” says Lee, “But try to have mealtimes together as a family. And when you do have a plan, let the children know about it. Some children like to have an idea of what’s going on — it naturally creates a structure in their heads.”

Thirdly, acknowledge that children are likely to be over-stimulated on the day — it’s difficult to avoid this, but you can manage it by paying close attention to what’s going on. “Parents may be very busy but they need to prioritise checking in on their children,” advises Murphy.

“Take any unusual behaviours like tantrums, withdrawals or being extra clingy and needy as evidence that something is not right with their child. Give them the focused attention they need and try to understand what’s causing the behaviour.”

Ultimately, if you focus on creating family traditions at Christmas, this is what will create the lasting memories.

“The biggest gift parents can give their children is establishing shared family traditions that involve everyone in the family unit,” says Murphy.

“Baking Christmas cookies, visiting granny and granddad, lighting the Christmas candle — all of these activities give parents the opportunity to bond the family together and will set the tone for future Christmas celebrations when their children are older. These are the memories and feelings that will embed in your toddlers and young children the real joy of Christmas, gathering loved ones together in a spirit of giving and sharing.”

Cranking down

Top tips for keeping the crankiness at bay — from parent coach, Aoife Lee.

  • Strike a balance between chill out time at home and being out and about. You can see it a mile away if cabin fever sets in.
  • Even on the rainiest of days, pull out the waterproofs and wellies and brace yourselves for a runabout in your local park. Forget all about the Christmas gifts; there’s nothing like returning home with soggy socks from an afternoon delving into the puddles.
  • Sweet treats — It’s inevitable that there is a lot more to graze on, whether it’s at home or visiting, and although we can’t deny them all the time, keep an eye on consumption, and make a decision about what’s realistic. Just think of the sugar crash coming your way.
  • Gifts — give the kids an opportunity to put some aside until the new year if you get away with it. To go one step further, encourage gratitude and generosity by sorting through toys that they are not playing with anymore and donate to charity.
  • Separate from one another — if tension is building between everyone, do something separately, for example some children go out with dad and the others with mam. This allows more appreciation of each other all round.
  • Have a night out yourselves — if you can, allow a night out to re-charge the batteries. Enjoy the holidays as a couple or with friends. A little time out can work wonders.

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