'Four-gift rule' and 10 other ways to help kids avoid Christmas overload
Understanding Christmas can be a tall order for children - once they have their heads around a man in a red suit getting down the chimney, they are expected to make sense of chaotic Christmas shopping, frantic festive family get-togethers and a deluge of gifts. Our reporter asks the experts for tips on how you can make this festive season a balanced, enjoyable and tantrum-free time for your little ones
1 Be mindful of routine changes
Christmas is indeed a wonderful time of year, but it can also be a stressful and confusing time for children. What often starts as joy over the impending arrival of Santa Claus and all manners of festive foods and visitors, can lead to prolonged feelings of overwhelming excitement, which are simply too much for little minds to bear.
"Routines go out the window at Christmas," says Clinical Psychologist Yvonne Quinn. "Children cope best in a world that is consistent and predictable. Understandably, around Christmas time, the usual structures that bookend a child's day tend to be superseded by festivities.
"However, lack of routine and predictability can feel overwhelming or anxiety-provoking for children, and some are particularly sensitive to changes in routine. You can help children cope with these changes by giving them notice about what is happening and try where possible to hold on to some structure in their day."
"It is important to accept that this is a challenging time of year for children, the hype is huge and it is played out over an extended period of time," agrees Psychotherapist Joanna Fortune. "There is now almost two full months of a lead-in to Christmas and that is way too much for them to manage because children don't yet have a good grasp on delayed gratification."
2 Make the hype more manageable
For many children, the Christmas excitement can start right after Halloween, which means that the months in between are spent waiting for that all-important moment when they will wake up on Christmas morning. According to Fortune, breaking the festive season into stages and including a number of key days or smaller events for children to look forward to inbetween, will make the entire idea of Christmas a lot easier to manage.
"Break down the seasonal hype into manageable stages, taking one task a week," advises Fortune. "It is easier for children to focus on one part of Christmas at a time, rather than the whole thing at once. For example, one week may be about making some new decorations that will go on the tree; another week could be focused on choosing a tree and decorating it; another week on doing something kind for someone else and so on.
"A very effective way of helping children with this is to make a special calendar and write these tasks up for each week."
3 Give Santa Claus clear and timely instructions
Avoid any possibility of the elves not having time to either make or shop for your child's chosen gift by writing letters to Santa early. "Sit together, over some hot chocolate with marshmallows in your pyjamas and write the Santa letters early enough, but not so early that children will change their minds about what they want," Fortune suggests.
"By making it something you all sit and do together, you are creating a nice tradition for your family. Once the letter is written, tell them Santa is working on it and if the letter contains something Santa cannot bring, for whatever reason, ensure Santa knows he should write back and explain that he cannot bring that specific gift, but will bring something else equally as wonderful."
4 Soothe don't spoil
Ward off tantrums by soothing rather than spoiling your children. "There is an important difference between spoiling and soothing," Dr Yvonne Quinn explains. "If your child throws a tantrum when you say 'no' to that extra chocolate bar and you change the rule and let him have it, that is giving in.
"He is learning that a tantrum is a successful way to get what he wants. But if you let him know you understand he is disappointed and angry, but a rule is a rule, and then help him calm down and begin another activity, you are teaching him to cope with disappointment.
"Connecting with a child when upset is about meeting the child's needs rather than giving him what he wants."
5 Manage expectations
Get your children to think long and hard about what they want from Santa Claus, rather than picking out the first thing they see on TV. "Children's expectations around Christmas are shaped by their prior experiences," Dr Yvonne Quinn explains.
"So don't reinforce unrealistic expectations by over indulging in the lead up to Christmas. For instance, what message do we give when we visit Santa three times? It is ok to say 'no' as overindulgence is unhelpful for children, parents and the relationship."
6 Keep presents simple
When it comes to gifts, Fortune suggests sticking to the Four Gift Rule: one thing they want, one thing they need, one thing to wear and one thing to read.
"Parents need to be aware and mindful of the amount of gifts children get," Joanna says. "You may or may not have control over what family members give your children, but for a child to be faced with gift after gift is very overwhelming. It might be a good idea to hold some gifts back and give them to your children throughout the Christmas period - otherwise they may not be able to appreciate any of it."
7 Highlight the importance of being grateful
Christmas can be very distracting for children. With all the lights, wrapping paper and complete and utter Christmas pandemonium going on in the background, it can be difficult for them to remember to say thank you. It is, however, hugely important. "Gratitude is an emerging skill. Like any other behaviour, children need to learn how to be grateful through practice," says Dr Quinn. Joanna Fortune advises parents to make thank-you cards with their children ahead of Christmas, which they can then write and give to relatives and friends, who give them a gift.
8 Encourage them to give
Giving something to those less fortunate can help to calm and open children's minds to the true meaning of Christmas.
"Encourage them to donate some older toys that are still in good condition with all parts and batteries to a charity for other children," says Fortune. "Or perhaps put together a donation for a shoe box appeal for another child, less fortunate than themselves."
9 Avoid overloading their senses
Regulate the amount of Christmas saturation, which you expose your children to. There is a fine line between getting into the Christmas spirit and finding yourselves exhausted and ill-tempered after a busy last-minute shopping spree.
"Avoid crowded shopping centres in the lead-up to Christmas when you have your children with you - it is overwhelming for them and you won't get the tasks done you need as the children will start acting out," adds Fortune.
"And if your child has additional needs such as sensory issues or emotional regulation issues, it is important to really modify the pace at which you celebrate; in this case you might not want to decorate your home until later, so the lead-in is shorter for them."
10 Ask Santa to bring a gift for all the family
Ensure that Santa brings a family game as a gift so you can all spend some very important time engaging playfully together.
"Christmas is the season of goodwill, so use this time to help children think about and behave in ways that embrace this value. Take time as a family every day to do something that connects you with each other," says Dr Quinn. "Usually, what children want more than anything else is quality time with those who matter the most to them."
Dr Yvonne Quinn is a Senior Clinical Psychologist who works with the HSE and in private practice at the Children's Practice in Sandyford, Dublin 18.
Psychotherapist Joanna Fortune has created the Santa's Little Buddy pack to help Children embrace the festive period in a more magical and manageable way this Christmas. For more information see santaslittlebuddy.com.
Health & Living