The Silly Season with Kids – How to Reduce Stress During the Holidays (For You and For Them)

The Silly Season with Kids - How to Reduce Stress During the Holidays (For You and For Them!)

As much as we love the holidays with our kiddos, there are way too many ‘opportunities’ to practice every trick/ bribe/ desperate parenting manoeuvre clever parenting strategy we know, in order to smooth the edges and make everything, you know, magical. This can bring more than a reasonable amount of stress during the silly season.

As well as the regular routine, new things get added to the ‘to-do’ list. There’s that magic-making thing to attend to, different routines to work around, expectations to manage, and the mammoth effort needed to avoid arguments and sugar-induced, or exhaustion-induced meltdowns. And then there are the meltdowns from our kids.

Things can get hectic. Happy, but hectic. If only we could box up the presents, the food, the stress, the queues at the checkout, the gladiatorial battles for car parks, and the military level of organisation needed for the silly season, and sprinkle it more evenly throughout the year so the other eleven months can take their share of the load. But we can’t do that, because then the silly season wouldn’t be the silly season. There wouldn’t be the looks on their faces, the squeals of pure joy, the countdowns, the excitement when the magic comes together, the stories when it doesn’t, and the ‘Santa’s watching’ threats reminders that supercharge our parenting toolkit for a while. What would be perfect, is if we could keep the good and take the stress back down to small enough. Here are some ways to do that …

  • Let go of the fantasy.

Don’t buy into the highly-glossed ideas of the way things ‘should’ be. Perfection comes bound together with squabbles and tantrums and hits and misses. It comes in moments. Precious, perfect moments, in between the glorious, ridiculous, chaotic mess that is real life. And those moments happen every day.

  • Decide what’s important – and let the rest go.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, kids will remember how they felt – as in how happy they were, how loved they were, how noticed they were. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

  • There are 365 days in the year. Not everything has to happen over Christmas.

There are plenty of days in the year for visits, parties, and making a good impression. Decide what’s important for you and your family and let that guide you. If it’s going to stretch the emotional or time resources of your family, rethink it. Not everything has to happen over Christmas. You can love your important people just as hard in the weeks before and after Christmas. Or in January. There’s always January.

  • When you’re writing your to-do list …

Don’t forget about you. Once you’re depleted, everything will become harder. But you already knew that. When you have small humans around you, taking time out to replenish can have the difficulty level of climbing Mt Everest, in heels, but a bit harder because Everest doesn’t scream and throw itself at your feet in public places if it misses bedtime. If you can, find ways to nurture your mental health together. Try exercising together (as in walking the dog type of exercise, not ‘let’s run until I can’t breathe’ type of exercise), practicing mindfulness together (taking a mindful walk, colouring in), or meeting up with a friend at the park while your kids play together. These are all ways to take pockets of time during the day to nurture your own mental health when there’s aren’t too many opportunities to take time out just for you.

  • Let some things drop off the list.

Give yourself permission to let some of the usual things drop off the list. Does it matter if the house isn’t as tidy as usual? And having ‘bought sushi’ for dinner two nights in a row won’t hurt them a bit. Nor will popping them in front of a movie some afternoons while you take some time out to recharge (and cleaning out the pantry is NOT time out). Whatever it takes. There’s nothing wrong with going into survival mode for a few weeks. And then a few more after that.

  • Keep it real.

We’ve all been there. That thing when one stupid little reindeer-shaped cookie turns into six. Or nine. But it always starts with one. And then the rest just kind of happen. It happens to all of us at least once during Christmas. Or on weekdays – sometimes it happens on weekdays. It’s very likely that over the Christmas holidays, you’ll see plenty of instances where your small humans show a breathtaking lack of self-control. If they ‘locust’ the party food, squabble with siblings or other kids, or have early evening meltdowns that have the consistency and stamina of an elite athlete, don’t take it as a reflection of your parenting. It’s not. It’s a reflection that there are some wonderfully exciting things happening that can get the better of all of us from time to time. There are plenty of opportunities for them to learn self-control. Christmas doesn’t have to be one of them. Build them up when you can (a decent breakfast, chats about the rules or good behaviour) and let it go when you can’t (as in when they are at a party with party food, because it’s a law of the universe (or if it’s not it should be) that the only ‘power greens’ that should ever be at a child’s party are jellies in the shape of teenage mutant ninja turtles. Anything else is a party food pretender.) When tantrums, squabbles, mishaps or mess-ups feel as though they are punctuating the holidays like commas, breathe, and know that these will be story gold one day.

  • They don’t have to get it right all the time. And neither do you.

Every moment that feels like a struggle is an opportunity to teach them something. Whether it’s how to get along with other people, how to cope with the plans changing, how to be patient, or how different they can be when they’re tired or when they’ve had a belly full of sugar. These are all life lessons that will take a while to learn, but they can come supercharged in the holidays. It’s all part of the things they have to experience on their way to being happy, healthy adults one day. Of course, it would be easier if these learning opportunities didn’t come so thick and heavy over Christmas, but sometimes you just have to go with these things. They don’t ruin the Christmas adventure, they’re part of it.

  • Encourage gratitude.

It’s really normal for kids to have trouble seeing outside of themselves. Empathy and the move away from seeing themselves as the centre of the universe takes a while to develop. In the meantime, children’s expectations at Christmas can run high – the food, the presents, the fun, the treats. By encouraging a regular gratitude practice, kids will start to learn to focus on what they have, rather than on what they don’t have. Slowly, they’ll learn to think less about themselves as the centre of everything, and more about themselves in the context of others. Encouraging them to give a gift to a charity that is collecting for less fortunate kids than them is one way to nurture this along. Another way is by helping them make a gratitude jar. Each night, ask they name or draw three things they are grateful for. They might need a little hand because at first, they might only think in material terms. (‘Well I’ll be grateful for a Scruff-A-Luvs dog when I get one but we might need two so it doesn’t get lonely.’) They might be grateful they have a snuggly bed to sleep in, they might be grateful they have people in their lives who love them and miss them when they aren’t around, they might be grateful for their pet … you see how it works. The jar is a reminder of how much they already have. The idea is that it’s harder to be self-absorbed or demanding when your focus is on what you have, rather than on what you want. Be patient though. Building beautiful humans is a process, and it all takes time.

  • Those little things they love – turn them into rituals.

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year. It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas – aside from the presents. They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be any big deal. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with their pancakes at breakfast last Christmas morning. If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the one scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (because you’d forgotten to buy more for the reindeer). You’d be surprised what they remember, and what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

  • And about getting along with other kids …

Sibling squabbles are one thing, but fights can be so much harder to deal with when they involve other kids. It’s important to remember that just because kids are related, it doesn’t mean they’ll get along. If there are cousins for example who get into a scrap every time they’re together, don’t expect that Christmas day will be the day it all sorts itself out. There are plenty of other days for that. Maybe it will sort itself out and maybe it won’t. Maybe everyone will have become a bit easier to get along with since last time they were together, but let them discover that themselves, not because it’s been forced onto them. Of course, it’s important to let them know that they have to share, be kind, not call names, and that sometimes they’re going to have to deal with people they find difficult to get on with, but let it be okay for your child to do their own thing if they want to. Don’t force them to play with the kids they struggle to get along with. It’s their special day too. None of us will get along with everyone. There will be plenty of opportunities for them to learn how to deal with difficult relationships. Christmas time doesn’t have to be one of them.

  • And when there’s family conflict.

If you know there are certain topics that will send adult conversation (or the entire the day) into a tailspin, try to agree that these will be no-fly zones on Christmas day. This might be politics, religion, whether football or ballet requires more skill, Kanye’s presidential potential, why your newly vegetarian daughter doesn’t have enough meat on her plate, or any other commentary on your parenting, your partner, or your children. If there is ongoing tension in your family, don’t put pressure on yourself to heal things Christmas day. Try to call a truce for the day, but don’t set your expectations too high with visions of group hugs and long overdue apologies. You can’t always see trouble coming, but when you get a hint that it’s brewing, try to shut it down as quickly as you can. Christmas is not the day to change people’s minds. Especially if they are minds that haven’t been open to changing on anything since 1967.

  • Manage your child’s expectations. Be clear about what’s expected, and be okay if it doesn’t quite work out that way.

When you can, start talking to your children about what to expect. ‘So we’ll open our presents, then we’ll have breakfast, then … and in the afternoon, there’s going to be a little bit of quiet time to get your energy back up for when Auntie Louise and Uncle Karl and the kids come for dinner.’ Similarly, if you’re going to somebody’s house and there are different rules, explain the rules as clearly as you can to them. ‘So remember at Grandma’s house, your feet stay on the floor and not on the couch. It’s okay to put your feet on the couch in our home, but in other people’s homes, remind your feet that they need to stay on the floor.’ This is all part of them learning that there are different rules for different environments. Their awareness of this will already be growing. For example, they would probably know it’s okay to wear their togs at the beach, but maybe not to the dentist. Similarly, they’d probably know that it’s okay to yell outside while they’re playing, but that it’s not such a great idea to yell in class.

And finally …

The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids. Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what family Christmases are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s where your favourite small humans see magic happen. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

One Comment

Julie

Thank you for this helpful and grounding article. It’s just what I needed to read right now before things really ramp up with family arriving in a couple of days, and work winding up not down. With recent renovations (almost) finished the house is still in a bit of chaos and my ‘to do’ list seems to be growing by the minute! This timely reminder will help to keep me focused on what really matters and to worry less about the mess.

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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