The Christmas Survival Guide
Love the festive season but hate getting stressed? Deirdre Rooney suggests ways to navigate the trickier parts of this time of year
It's the most wonderful time of the year - families coming together, Santa Claus, a break from school and work, and the magical spirit of it all. But Christmas can also throw up some difficult and stressful situations... like families coming together, Santa Claus and a break from school and work.
Happy families clad in woolly jumpers playing games in front of a cosy log fire, all smiles and full of thanks, is a picture- perfect TV-Christmas idyll. In reality, the season comes with extra stresses. From demanding kids to overwhelmed toddlers and interfering in-laws - not to mention the cost of it all - there are many tricky situations that require careful planning and skilful handling to keep it a happy Christmas.
With the help of top parenting coaches and financial experts, our survival guide will help you get a handle on the chaos, avoid the usual pitfalls and prepare for every eventuality, so you can have yourself a merry little Christmas.
1 How to manage kids' expectations
Young kids want it all, and it's not surprising given that Christmas is flogged weeks in advance. "The excitement and chats about Christmas can start earlier than Halloween in some households," says Aoife Lee, parent coach at Parent Support. "We, the parents, have just as much responsibility in managing those conversations, as well as encouraging writing the Santa letters. Simple conversations about appreciating what we have can go a long way.
It's important to teach children about the value of their toys and belongings by showing appreciation, minding them, sharing them, knowing when enough is enough and being grateful. Creating conversation about giving to others, particularly at this time of year, can be such an empowering way of teaching our children empathy as well as giving to others."
Trevor Higgins, parent coach at Clouds Away, says Santa has his part to play in managing expectations, too. "Sometimes, putting it back on Santa can help by highlighting that even he has limitations; he does his best to satisfy every wish, but it's not always possible."
2 How to avoid overspending at Christmas
Who hasn't overspent or under- budgeted at Christmas? It's a costly time that puts enormous pressure on parents. John Lowe, the Money Doctor, has some top money-saving tips we could all use. "If you have a large family, consider Kris Kindle, and set limits on the presents to be bought," says John. "For food and drink, have a pre-written shopping list, and never shop on an empty stomach. Also consider supermarket own-brand generic products rather than more expensive brand-name products."
Planning an overall Christmas budget -and sticking to it - is also key, says John. "Plan what you are going to spend and also where the money is coming from to fund that spend. Make a list and, after setting a spending limit, work out the cost of presents, additional costs like cards or decorations, food and drink, and entertainment like the panto or the cinema, and so on. Total all these costs. The ideal, of course, is to fund from your savings. If you have to borrow, try and ensure these borrowings, whether a loan or credit card debt, are repaid before next Christmas."
And for those with newborns in the house, celebrating their first Christmas, John says to resist the urge to splurge.
"Just be as frugal as possible," John says. "It is wonderful to celebrate your child's first Christmas, or your toddler's first trip to see Santa, but if you're feeling the pinch with a new child, remember that they won't remember their first or second Christmas. There is no need to put yourself under huge pressure to provide the picture-perfect pile of presents."
3 What to do if your child has a meltdown in Santa's grotto
"The excitement may get the better of them and this can spill over into testing behaviours," says Aoife. "If you see your child's behaviour unravel in front of you, if you can, firstly try and distract. If it's gone beyond this, take them out of the grotto as a means for space and time to calm down, not only for them but for the parent too."
Aoife advises preparing your child before the visit, to avoid any tantrums. "Have a little chat beforehand about how much you know they are going to enjoy themselves and how well they are going to listen. Make sure that they are not overtired or hungry, and the visit itself isn't too close to bedtime. Also, avoid long queues - adults, too, can often struggle with long and busy queuing, never mind our smallies.
"Avoid having too high expectations on the children, particularly when places are busy and crowded."
4 How to get the kids to bed on Christmas Eve when excitement levels are at 90
"Make a decision on bedtime - allow a slightly later stay-up time that won't make them overtired, as this can often lead to having difficulty getting to sleep," says Aoife. "Keep the routine similar to your regular nights - children cope a lot better knowing what's happening next. Try to keep everything calm and relaxed with a movie or story. I know it's easier said than done, but the more relaxed they are, the easier it will be to settle them. Acknowledge the excitement while encouraging the wind-down."
Trevor Higgins recommends plenty of fresh air and exercise on Christmas Eve to ensure the kids are physically tired at bedtime. "Reminding them that Santa won't come until they're asleep can often be a useful incentive," he adds.
If your child is anxious about Santa coming into their house, Aoife has the perfect reassurance. "Let them know that he's only doing his job and, of course, topping up on his mince pies and milk to keep him going through the night."
5 What to do if your child catches you in the act of placing Santa presents
"This has to be every parent's nightmare, particularly if a child is on the verge of not believing," says Aoife. "How we respond will be different for every parent, and every parent knows their own child best. Firstly, keep calm. Accept the fact that there will be questions, and if you do decide to tell a fib or two, know that it's in the best interest of your child. Whatever you say, keep it short and sweet."
Trevor agrees. "The priority would be on not spoiling the child's belief in Santa. If a parent is caught in the act, then they could clarify that this particular present is from the parent themselves and not from Santa. They could say something like, 'I forgot to put this one under the tree earlier so that's why I'm doing it now.'
"Sometimes changing the wrapping paper can also help to throw them off the scent," he says.
6 How to handle tears over Santa presents
"As tempted as we may be to read them the riot act about not being appreciative, I think it's important to firstly show empathy," says Aoife.
"Acknowledge how they might be feeling, followed up by how lucky they are - our children are watching us all the time; they listen to what we say and see what we do and how we do it. Show your child that you are thankful for what others do and the efforts your child makes too. Show your appreciation for all that is good in your lives. Once we instil this value, it will help in their own ways of coping, not only at Christmas but every other day.
"And if certain gifts aren't in the Santa sack, there's no harm pre-empting before Christmas morning: 'Santa will always do his best' and not to be too disappointed if they don't get everything they ask for."
7 Your child overhears an older kid saying there's no Santa - what do you say?
"I would make it the other child's problem by saying something like, 'Oh that's too bad. It sounds like that boy has lost his Christmas spirit.' I would then stress that it's a good thing that we still believe in Santa so that we can benefit from all of the magic," says Trevor.
"Depending on their age and place in the family, this will determine your response," says Aoife. "When we're not prepared for that line, we can sometimes panic. If they are older and on the verge of not believing, ask them, 'What do you think?' If they are persistent about not believing, then maybe it's time to go with it."
8 How to tell friends you no longer want to buy/receive gifts
With office Kris Kindle and a growing number of kids to buy for, not to mention your own family, the list of giftees is ever-expanding. Don't be afraid to suggest to your friends that you think maybe there's no need to buy presents for each other this year. Chances are, they'll be feeling the exact same, and grateful you brought it up first.
"I think that having an honest conversation with a friend and explaining your reasons is probably the best bet. A true friend will understand," says Trevor.
9 How to avoid festive family feuding
Father-in-law criticising your cooking efforts? Auntie Mary imparting unwanted tips for raising your kids? Just take a deep breath and do as Michelle Obama would - 'When they go low, we go high.'
"A good strategy might be to actively decide not to allow certain individuals to ruin your experience," says Trevor. "You can choose to take the high road and disengage from toxic conversations as soon as possible."
10 How to have a green Christmas
Not all wrapping paper is created equal in terms of recycling. If the paper has glitter on it or is shiny metallic, it can't go in the recycling bin, likewise if there's Sellotape on it. Another way to gift the environment is to do what Granny used to do and save the paper for reuse.
If the smell of a real tree is non-negotiable, try to buy a tree grown locally. These result in a lower carbon footprint and are more sustainable. And always turn off the tree lights after everyone has gone to bed - not only will it prevent fires, but it will save energy, too.