You’re probably all too familiar with the holiday rush: There are concerts, parties, recitals, sugary treats, parades, late nights, movies, extended family in town, vacation from school … and a schedule that even you can barely follow. And if you’ve got a small child (or children) in your life, it’s all the more complicated as you try and balance all the busy while also caring for little ones.
This holiday rush is exhilarating — but it so often also leaves us with overtired, over-sugared, overstretched children, melting down at the worst moments (like when you’re in the checkout line with a loaded grocery cart or just as you’re sitting down to a special dinner).
And let’s face it — you’re probably overwhelmed and overstretched too (check out the first post in this series for tips on managing the overwhelm!), making it even harder to manage the added stress you’re absorbing for your children.
The following tips won’t make this month any less busy — but hopefully they’ll help you shepherd your little ones gracefully through the season:
1. Let go of the expectation of perfection.
It can be truly amazing to experience the holidays through the eyes of your child. But the prospect of this joy — of how good it can be — creates sky-high expectations, and it’s easy to feel disappointed when things don’t go as planned.
Social media doesn’t help: Five minutes on Pinterest can make us feel like we’re not doing enough, and scrolling through Facebook makes it seem like everyone else’s kids are handling the holidays perfectly — sitting still through long performances with perfectly coiffed hair and neatly coordinated outfits.
So please hear this: Perfectly-executed holiday events and traditions don’t exist.
This hashtag sums it up beautifully: #whiningandbickeringnotpictured.
Because behind every idyllic picture, there’s some unplanned chaos: There’s a tantrum; there’s a frustrated parent; there’s a spilled bowl of cookie batter. And that’s okay. Because despite whatever chaos might ensue, you’re still spending time with your children and making memories, which is what they’ll remember!
So do yourself a favor: Paint a different picture with your expectations. Plan for a little chaos. When we expect the unexpected, we’re less likely to feel disappointed when someone takes a bite of the gingerbread house or decides to unwrap a present early or melts down at the holiday parade. And when we roll with — and maybe even find some humor in? — the chaos, we don’t pass our disappointment onto our kids.
2. Stress less about traditions.
I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: When they’re all grown up, your kids will remember the happy moments they spent with YOU. It matters less what you do than the fact that you do it together. Sometimes, the most wonderful holiday memories come in the form of organic, unplanned moments.
Take this past Thursday afternoon as an example: My kids were losing their minds by 4:30 because they were hangry and tired and just kind of done. So we decided on an uncharacteristically early dinner, which left everyone much happier — but also resulted in an unusually long block of time between dinner and bedtime.
So we decided to try something different. We got the kids ready for bed, bundled them up in the double stroller, and walked around the neighborhood looking at Christmas lights. It was magical — and a completely unplanned, flexible response to a chaotic afternoon.
3. Keep things consistent.
To the extent possible, try and plan around your child’s schedule. Think of your child’s schedule as the anchor during this season of gatherings, events, and excitement, and keep things like bedtimes, naps, mealtimes, and routines consistent.
For example, let’s say you’re planning to take your four-year-old to see the Nutcracker. Could you choose the matinee so that he’s not up past his bedtime?
Or maybe you’re invited to a holiday party at your neighbor’s house. Could you head home a little early so that your three-year-old gets to bed on time? Or take turns with your partner so that you both get to enjoy without keeping your kiddo up too late?
Or let’s say you’ve got dinner at your cousin’s house an hour later than your family normally eats dinner. Could you feed your toddler dinner at the usual time so he’s not starving when you arrive? And maybe bring jammies along so that if he falls asleep in the car on the way home, it’s no big deal?
And if you just can’t make it work and are feeling like the kids (or you!) have had too much lately? It’s okay to stay home sometimes!
3. Have an exit plan—and use it when you need it.
You’re out to dinner after the school holiday concert, and your four-year-old is just done.
You’re at the town Christmas parade, and your one-year-old, who’s freezing and hasn’t had a nap yet, is screaming and crying and totally overwhelmed.
You’re in line to see Santa, and your five-year-old is hitting her brother and struggling with the whole waiting-in-line thing.
In these moments, it’s totally okay to bow out! It’s actually the most loving thing you can do (for your kids and for yourself).
Children act out when their needs are not met — when they’re hungry, tired, overwhelmed, or over-scheduled. And the really tough part? When you ask them if they’re hungry or tired — or Heaven forbid actually suggest they eat or sleep — they’ll almost never admit it (especially when they’re really little). You’re not dealing with rational agents in these moments, and the kindest thing to do is to call it and head home.
“Calling it” doesn’t need to be punitive; you’re showing your child that you care, you hear what she’s trying to tell you, and you’re acting accordingly. And she’s probably not going to be very happy about this change of plans, but that’s okay; you can feel confident in knowing you’re doing right by her. You can try again next time (or next year, as the case may be).
4. Allow space for feelings.
Despite our best intentions, there are times our child’s feelings will conflict with our plans.
Like when you’re getting your family ready to go to grandma’s house for a holiday dinner, and your five-year-old really doesn’t want to go. Or when you’re excited to get a picture of your toddler with Santa, but she’s in tears and absolutely terrified. Or when you can’t wait to exchange gifts with extended family, but your preschooler gets anxious and refuses when he’s asked to open his gifts in front of everyone.
These moments can be frustrating. Still, it’s so important to invite your child to share these difficult feelings with you — and to meet these feelings with empathy.
If you’re in public, maybe take your child somewhere more private while you talk with her. Let her know you get it: “I hear you. You really don’t want to sit with Santa right now!” Give her time and space to fall apart a little; just be with her.
When whatever your child is objecting to is optional (like sitting on Santa’s lap), don’t force it. And when you really need to follow through despite your child’s objections (like when you’re heading to grandma’s or to church or synagogue or to a school event), you can still respectfully and lovingly allow space for your child’s feelings. You can say: “I hear you. You really don’t want to go to grandma’s right now! You’re having a hard time getting ready.”
This time, though, while you’re saying this, you’re getting his shoes and coat, helping him get into the car, or buckling him into the car seat. You’re gently moving him through the process of getting ready — he’s struggling, and he’s shown you that he needs your help.
Sometimes just allowing space for feelings is enough for kids to feel safe enough to move forward with whatever it is you’re doing. But even when that’s not the case, inviting your child to share her feelings with you — her safe person — is always the right move for your relationship with her.
5. Prepare children for what’s coming — without over-hyping it.
We’ve done the holiday thing many times throughout our lives; we know what’s coming, and we often get excited as we look forward to traditions.
But young children have only done this a few times, and they don’t have a solid idea yet of what to expect. They also don’t have a solid concept of time yet, which can make the waiting really difficult. (Think back to when you were little and the two weeks leading up to Christmas felt like forever.)
So there’s a discrepancy between how we adults anticipate the holidays and how our kids experience them, meaning that sometimes — without realizing it or meaning to — we can create over-excitement, and even anxiety, around events or activities that are coming up.
We might say things like, “Santa is coming next week!” or “We’re going to see the parade — aren’t you excited?!” But our children hear this, and without a solid idea of what this means, they can get anxious and overly energized and unsure of how to act or what to do.
So instead, prepare children for what’s coming using their current frame of reference.
For example, you might say to a preschooler, “In two more sleeps, Santa is coming! We will wake up, and there will be special presents for everyone that we will open and enjoy.” Or you might tell your toddler, “After you wake up from your nap, we will be going in the car to see a parade, where we will hear music and see trucks driving by.”
Then allow space for your child to ask questions, share thoughts, or voice concerns. If you’re met with resistance, maybe evaluate whether this is something you really need to do; evaluate whether this is truly something your child can handle right now.
There’s a common theme in all of these tips for successfully navigating (and enjoying!)the holidays with young children: We have to let go a little.
We have to loosen our expectations, our ideas about how things should be, and our ideas about what our children should enjoy or how much they will be able to handle.
Part of the holiday magic lies in experiencing things through the eyes of our children — we get excited because they’re excited, right? But in order to really enjoy this process, we need to allow our children to actually, organically experience these events and traditions— and give them space to feel however they feel, even if they’re less-than-thrilled about whatever we’re doing.
When we can do this, we will be able to create joy and make magical memories, even in the seemingly insignificant moments, and even when things don’t go as planned.
Dr. Hilary Mandzik is a Licensed Psychologist serving Cary, NC and the Triangle area. She provides support for parents through consultations and workshops in her Cary office and offers online consultations for parents throughout NC and VA. Click here or call 919–344–1296 to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if working together is a good fit for your family’s needs.