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Christmas Holidays 2021: Top Tips for reducing stress in order to experience a calmer, easier, happier holiday season
Photo byMel Poole on Unsplash

I always recommend that you start thinking about and planning for the Christmas holidays at least a month in advance. With your partner (or with a friend, if you’re a single parent) spend some time thinking through what this time of year means to you, and what you want your children to experience. You can do this either in one long sitting of an hour or two, or you can do it in several short bursts.

(As always, each time I mention children in this article, I am including teens as well. The strategies that I talk about in this article will help bring out the best in teens as well as in younger children.)

Take some time to clarify your values

For many parents who have been on furlough, or even worse lost jobs and contracts in the past year or so, budgets are probably going to be much tighter than usual. Obviously this can be a significant cause of stress. So it’s doubly important to clarify your values and to plan how to make the best use of your time, finances, and other resources.

Here are some questions you might like to consider:

  • Do you want to have a simpler and less expensive holiday, guiding your children to place less emphasis on receiving and more on giving and sharing?
  • Do you want your children to realise that parents have to work long hours to pay for new toys, trips, outings, designer labels and the latest electronic gadgets?
  • Do you want the family to share cosy “down-time” together at home?
  • Do you want to make sure your children won’t be spending too much time glued to a screen?
  • Do you want to motivate your children or teens to complete holiday homework or overdue coursework and do their best?
  • Do you want them to revise for exams or sharpen some rusty academic skills?
  • Do you want to make sure your children won’t be eating too many sweets or too much junk food?
  • Do you want your children to learn and understand a bit more every year about the mid-winter festivals, such as Christmas, Chanukah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, etc.?
  • Do you want to use this time to introduce your children to some new experiences?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, read on for some tried and tested solutions.

Day-to-day planning

Regular routines

You have probably already had to adjust your routines several times, due to on-again, off-again lockdowns, and we all may have to keep adjusting them as situations continue to change.

Whatever the COVID news is, in the run-up to Christmas and during the holidays make sure you keep a structure of routines, rules, and rewards. Whatever else is going on, you’ll find that keeping to predictable, consistent routines will help make all of December calmer, easier and happier. Keeping to routines will also help make the transition back to school and extra-curricular activities less stressful for the whole family.

Remember: Routines reduce resistance.

Daily plans

Children always stay calmer, more cooperative, and more flexible when parents take the time to make sure that everyone in the family knows what to expect each day:

  • where they will be going and why
  • what new people they will need to greet and talk to
  • what choices they’ll have, and what decisions you will allow them to make for themselves
  • any new rules or routines
  • any unfamiliar foods they might be served
  • any unfamiliar events that they might be reluctant to participate in
  • what they can and cannot play with when they’re away from home
  • when you will be available to play with them
  • whether you will or won’t be buying them snacks, treats, souvenirs, etc.
  • if they have their own money with them, what they will be allowed to spend it on
  • if they have money saved but didn’t bring it with them, whether you will or won’t lend them money
  • if, and when, they will be allowed screen time
  • what to do if a problem arises, such as an accident or hurt feelings or a sibling conflict

Think-Throughs

A think-through is a parenting tool that is very effective at guiding children and teens to become more cooperative, confident, motivated, self-reliant, and considerate. Each think-through consists of a parent asking questions about what the child should do in a given situation, and the child answering the questions.

On holiday, after breakfast is a great time to do think-throughs about the rest of the day. First, to set the standard you expect in terms of cooperation, self-reliance, and contributing to the household, every day make sure that the whole family is involved in clearing up after breakfast and doing the washing up. Immediately after that, formally sit your children down to preview what their day will consist of.

First you will need to tell them, very clearly and simply, what they need to know in order to be prepared for the day ahead.

Then you do the think-throughs. Ask your children to tell you, in their own words, what you will be expecting of them in each part of the day. Ask questions that start with: What, When, Where, How, Who, Which, Why. Your child or teen needs to answer politely and in full sentences.

Each think-through lasts approximately one minute, not much less and not much more. That way it won’t feel like an ordeal for either you or your children.

As your child answers your questions, she is visualising herself doing all the things she is telling you. This will help to make the daily plan a reality.

Think-throughs are an excellent way to Prepare For Success, which is one of the key strategies of ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’. I explain about think-throughs in detail in my books, and you can also find a bite-sized overview, with examples, over on my Instagram feed.

At-home projects

At-home projects are frequently more relaxing, more fun, and more meaningful than bought treats and big outings, which can be expensive and which can end up with parents feeling under-appreciated. At-home projects for parents and children to do together might be: making a Lego village, writing and illustrating a short book, making a scrapbook, writing and putting on a short play, planning a day out, baking or making a special meal, DIY, and of course making Christmas cards for family and friends.

Children do need to get out of the house, so plan smaller outings, such as family walks. Involve your children in deciding the route before you leave home. Drawing a map together is fun and teaches many important skills.

Fun Idea: Together create a treasure hunt for your walk. This could take place in your neighbourhood or in a park. Help your children find particular plants, trees, birds and other wildlife, signs, types of buildings and shops, Christmas decorations, etc.

Daily academic work

By now, you are probably all too familiar with the pluses and minuses of home-schooling! If home-schooling was stressful for you or for your children, as it was for many families, you may feel that during the school holidays children need a break from academic learning.

But doing some academic work most days during the holidays will achieve several very important goals:

  • It will keep academic skills sharp, and it will help transfer newly learned skills from your child’s short-term memory to his/her long-term memory.
  • It will boost your child’s confidence.
  • It will make the transition back to school after the holidays calmer, easier, and happier.
  • It will help make up for the lack of in-school learning your children and teens experienced earlier this year during lockdown.

For primary school children, half an hour a day of structured, formal learning will probably be enough. Teens may need to spend longer than that, especially if they are revising for exams, which are likely to be more important than ever in the coming year.

If the school hasn’t set any homework for the holidays, guide each child to choose a project to work on five or six days a week. For younger children this could be about something that interests them, such as dinosaurs, football, or art. For older children and teens, find out which subjects they need to improve. Sit with your children and work with them. The more engaged and enthusiastic you are, the more engaged and enthusiastic your children will be.

Descriptively Praise sensible work habits, and remember to sound enthusiastic:
‘In this word all your letters are on the line.’
‘In this paragraph you remembered most of the capital letters.’
‘That’s an interesting fact.’
‘You took the time to think carefully, so all your answers are correct.’
‘This essay is the longest one you’ve written so far.’
‘You weren’t sure what that word meant so you looked it up.’

Useful fact: Spending just five minutes a day on any topic, such as multiplication facts, spellings, French vocabulary, science definitions, etc, will improve skills, knowledge, and confidence faster than you might think possible.

Screen time

If you’re not careful, computer games, social media, surfing the web, YouTube, films, and television can eat up a lot of your children's time during the holidays.

To keep children from spending too much time in front of a screen or whingeing about being bored, parents need to arrange regular activities that are purposeful and challenging as well as fun. See further down this article for some ideas.

To achieve a sensible balance between screen and non-screen activities, I always suggest that screen time should happen only after children and teens have done the following:

  • tidied their rooms
  • fed their pet
  • exercised
  • helped around the house and garden
  • completed their half-hour of academic work

When parents stick with this plan, time in front of a screen is experienced by children and teens as a reward they can earn, rather than as their birth-right or as their default activity when they don’t know what to do with themselves. And when they are allowed less screen time, this often motivates them (although probably not overnight!) to pursue more intellectually challenging or more creative pastimes, such as reading, playing board games, drawing, crafts, etc.

You may be keen to put into practice the plan I’ve outlined above, but perhaps you don’t think you know how to manage your child’s or teen’s resistance. We have a number of resources, either completely free or quite inexpensive, that can help:

  • In the Blog section of our website, we have two articles about how to make screen time rules and routines calmer, easier, and happier for all concerned.
  • On our YouTube channel, you’ll find a number of video interviews in which I explain how to handle various screen issues.
  • And on Amazon you can find my book, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time’, which is available as a paperback, as an ebook, or as an audiobook.

New experiences

Last year during the Christmas season, there were far fewer opportunities to expose your children to new experiences, such as attending a Christmas concert, play or pantomime, or visiting a museum, going to a new restaurant, or getting together with extended family that you haven’t seen in a long time. So you may now be wanting to make up for lost time.

Whether the new experiences will take place at home, in your neighbourhood, or farther afield, remember to Prepare For Success. This will benefit all children and teens, but it is especially useful if you have a child with an extreme temperament, who is likely to be quite inflexible and therefore reluctant to try new things.

Here are some ways you can guide your children and teens to be braver, more open-minded, and more enthusiastic about new experiences:

  • Start telling your children about an event that they may be dreading days, or even weeks, ahead of time. Familiarity gradually leads to acceptance and confidence.
  • Don’t give children a choice about whether they will attend. Instead, present it as non-negotiable fact.
  • Show them pictures of similar events, to take the edge off their apprehension.
  • Allow children to complain. When you state, or even imply, that your children will enjoy something, they may become determined to prove you wrong. Instead, empathise with them; acknowledge that they may indeed hate every moment of the event the first few times they do it.
  • When children ask some version of ‘Why do I have to?’, don’t launch into an explanation. Often, a child’s ‘Why?’ isn’t a genuine request for information; it’s their way of saying that they don’t want to do it. Respond with a question of your own: ‘Why do you think we’re taking you to this event?’ Children can always take a sensible guess.
  • Arrange a reward for minimal moaning during the event.
  • When the dreaded day finally arrives, Descriptively Praise even tiny signs of courage and willingness.

Food treats

During the holiday season, enticing food treats, as well as adverts for them, are everywhere, so children understandably yearn for them and whinge for them. Parents, who are already preoccupied and probably stressed by the many unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season, are tempted to allow children more of the foods that they know aren’t good for them: desserts and snacks and treats that are high in sugar, salt, and fat.

Not only does the cost mount up, and not only can these tasty but non-nutritious foods blunt children’s interest in and appetite for healthier food, but these treats are usually not good for our kids’ moods or behaviour either.

So always keep food treats to a minimum. One way to achieve this is not to keep sweet foods and other appealing snacks in the house; that will make it much easier to limit their consumption. A maximum of two or three non-nutritious small treats a week is a good rule of thumb. When you suspect that your children will be offered these treats outside of the house, make sure they have a healthy meal inside them first. That will help to keep their mood and behaviour stable.

Fun idea: Making home-made healthy treats with your children is a great at-home activity. Involve your children in deciding which ones to experiment with.

Money matters

Children intuitively understand everything there is to know about ‘pester-power’. On outings, instead of succumbing to pleas for junk food treats or for tacky souvenirs that you know will soon be broken or forgotten, a useful strategy is to hand each child a small amount of money at the beginning of the day which they can spend however they want.

The amount of money you give must not be enough for a big splurge or for endless bags of crisps. Give them just enough money so that they will be forced to consider their options carefully; this teaches valuable lessons in delaying gratification, prioritising, and problem-solving. Include a think-through before the outing about how they they will and won’t be allowed to spend their money.

This plan will keep you from being cast in the role of nay-saying ogre. Rather than lecturing, negotiating, and repeating yourself, you will be free to have real conversations with your children while you all enjoy the outing.

Appreciating cultural traditions and understanding the meaning behind mid-winter festivals

You can deepen your children’s knowledge and understanding of the winter festivals of other religions and cultures, as well as of their own. One way to do this is to find one or more books that are at the right level for each of your children, and read to them about the holiday and its history, taking the time to clear up possible confusions and to explore any questions your children may have.

Even making a special outing to the library to find books on these topics can become a looked-forward-to holiday tradition.

As a family you can all participate in an activity that is sometimes called a ‘circular story’. Starting at the beginning of the story, each person in the circle adds one more sentence to the story, including as many details as they can remember. Here’s an example: One person might start the Nativity story with ‘Once upon a time, Mary and Joseph were travelling to Bethlehem.’ The next person in the circle might add ‘Mary was on a donkey’ or ‘Mary was pregnant’ or ‘They were married’ or ‘Joseph was the husband’, etc.

In addition to bedtimes, an often-overlooked time for reading to children or telling stories is at mealtimes. Keep it to a maximum of ten minutes so that you ‘leave them wanting more’, as they say in show business.

Gift-giving

When children are fixated on what they will be getting for Christmas, parents may feel frustrated, wishing they knew how to guide children towards experiencing the far deeper satisfaction that comes from giving and sharing.

Christmas clear-out

One way to kick-start this more mature and more rewarding attitude of giving and sharing is to establish a new tradition, sometimes called the ‘Christmas Clear-out’.

Explain to your children that as a family you will all be making room in your house or flat for new presents and that the toys and equipment you all no longer want can be used to raise money to help people who have much, much less.

Make a project of carefully scouting around the house together, room by room, including the garden, collecting up:

  • all the toys, games, dolls, books, and puzzles that are too babyish for even the youngest child
  • any sports equipment, electronic or kitchen gadgets that no one can be bothered to get fixed
  • any clothes that are too small, too worn or terminally uncool
  • any unnecessary duplicates
  • any toys or clothing that go against your values

Involve your children in every aspect of the clear-out: Have them help you find the items to donate or recycle and help you put them in bags or boxes; have the children help you load the car; take the children with you when you drop off the bags at the charity shop or recycling centre; have them help you lug the bags out of the car; and finally, celebrate together that as a family you’ve all done something good for the community or for the planet. This clearing-out project can be repeated, on a smaller scale, before each birthday. From the experience of clearing out, your children will learn important lessons about letting go, recycling, and sharing.

Gift-buying vs gift-making

Family meetings are a great way to bring sanity to Christmas gift-giving. Sit the whole family down, and together make a list of everyone to whom the family will be giving presents, for example: each other, grandparents, other extended family, teachers, tutors, sports coaches, the children’s friends, neighbours, etc.

Help your children think about:

  • Why do you want to give a gift to this person?
  • What would each person on the list appreciate and use?
  • What is the budget?
  • What is the cost of buying a gift as compared to the cost of buying the materials to make a gift?
  • When are family members available for making or buying gifts, and for posting or delivering the gifts?

Then together decide whether you will, as a family, make or buy each gift. Children and teens tend to like shiny, new things as presents. So they may not realise that for most adults the old saying is true, ‘It’s the thought that counts’; many adults would prefer a handmade card as a present from a child.

Next, schedule times for making or buying, and also plan when you will give or post each present.

If you all decide to buy gifts for your children’s teachers, sports coaches, after-school childminders, etc, make sure that the gifts truly come from the child, not just from you. Take the children along when you go shopping for the gifts, and help your children evaluate the pros and cons of possible purchases and think about value for money.

Instead of having the presents wrapped in the shop, have a gift-wrapping session at home. Set an example of creativity and experimentation, such as using comics, pieces of cloth, or tin foil as wrapping paper, using brightly coloured wool or even strings of beads as ribbons, decorating the wrapping paper with drawings, photographs, stickers, cut-outs of pictures or words from magazines, etc.

For the gifts or cards you decide to make, you may need to go to a shop to buy craft supplies, or you may need to order them online; get your children involved even at this stage. Then as a family, have fun creating truly personalised cards and gifts.

Remember: Do think-throughs before starting any family activity so that everyone knows who will be doing what.

The above suggestions are only a small sampling of the many strategies that parents have used to create new holiday rituals or to tweak and transform old traditions. The results add up to less stress and more enjoyment all around.

We wish you a calmer, easier, happier Christmas 2021

© Noël Janis-Norton 2005 / 2021

Descriptive Praise free ebook

If you don’t yet have your copy of my free ebook that explains this foundation strategy in detail, and that gives you lots of helpful examples, you can get instant access by adding your details here.

You may like these ideas but be unsure how to put them into practice. Would you like some advice about how to make all this happen? To find out how the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’ resources and services can help you and your family, please browse our website or email us: admin@calmerparenting.co.uk

In addition to our books, audiobooks and ebooks, we also provide free support materials in the blog section of our website (videos, podcasts and articles), on our YouTube channel and on our Facebook page.

If you would like personalised advice that is specific to your family’s needs, we offer a parenting programme that consists of online private consultations plus in-person home visits.

For schools we offer parenting talks and teacher-training.

Please get in touch for more information. Noël and her team welcome enquiries from parents and educators.

 

If you know anyone who might be interested in the above suggestions we are happy for you to share this article;
however, please forward the article in its entirety, including the logo and the last paragraph, and make sure that
Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’ is credited. Thank you.

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