Saturday 17 August 2019

Clinical psychologist David Coleman: How to avoid a yuletide meltdown

The festivities are all about fun, but as we know, our little ones often get over-excited, which can result in us, the parents, getting worked up. The key to keeping everyone calm this Christmas is to plan ahead, says clinical psychologist David Coleman

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist
Plan ahead to keep calm this Christmas
David Coleman

David Coleman

Many of us love and dread the Christmas season in equal measure. We may love our family traditions, the time to reconnect with family, the decoration of our home, the food, the presents, the excitement and the religious celebrations, but any one of those wonderful moments also has the potential to cause heartache too.

We have probably all encountered the over-heated, over-sugared and over-excited child who either ends up running and screaming around, or collapses in a whinging, wailing heap on the floor. So what can we do to maximise the enjoyment and minimise the stress of Christmas with our children?


Planning is the key to surviving, nay thriving, through Christmas with children. Some of you may already be thinking 'I'm not going to over-schedule my Christmas, it is a holiday and we need the downtime.' That is true, but when you have children, a bit of structure and some forethought can ease a lot of the effort required to be able to really enjoy the holiday.

If you are going to church on Christmas morning, your young children may not understand the significance. So, in the lead up to Christmas, make sure to have lots of story time about Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus. Particularly if your faith is important to you, sharing it with your children makes the Christmas holidays meaningful.

Then for the actual service, be realistic about what you can expect from your child. Chances are they are tired after an early start, and possibly already sugared-up with some pre-breakfast selection boxes. So, bring picture books, a small toy and any soothers or blankies, to keep your child occupied and ready for a quiet snuggle if needed.

Also, don't feel obliged to stay in the church if your child heads for a meltdown. A quick exit and some fresh air might do wonders for you and them.

Santa is, no doubt, frantically busy right now. The last thing he needs is an expectation that he can produce the "in demand" toy-du-jour at the last moment. Hopefully you will have persuaded your children to put in their requests to Santa early, such that his elves can have been busy.

There is none of us that like to see children disappointed because Santa couldn't deliver what was hoped for. So, if you know that Santa won't have enough of a specific toy to satisfy every child that was looking for it, then start to manage expectations now. Better your child is disappointed sooner rather than later.

When it comes to gifts, generally, how likely is it that your child will be really lucky and receive lots of presents from family and friends? If that is likely, then you might also want to think about your present-opening traditions.

Receiving a lot of gifts, all at the one time, can be really over-stimulating for a child, especially a young child. Part of the difficulty is that they can experience "present-fatigue", where they become almost robotic, like a present-opening machine, with the actual gifts then quickly discarded when the next wrapped present is grabbed.

As a parent we can watch, somewhat horrified, as our child seems to be so greedy and unappreciative. The difficulty is not, necessarily, that our child doesn't appreciate or doesn't value what they have received, they have probably just received too much at the one time.

So, space out your gift-giving through the day, or even over several days, such that your child gets to pause, notice what they have been given, appreciate it, and enjoy it. Think too about only allowing one gift at a time to be opened by any family member. That way, everyone gets to see what everyone else is getting.

This also allows us to properly give thanks to each other. Letting your children see and experience your gratitude for what you have received is good role-modelling for them. Slowing down the present-giving allows for a more mindful and valuable shared family experience. It is good for children to have experience of delaying their gratification!

Visiting family and friends is another staple part of Christmas for most of us. But, when you are going visiting do think about where you are going. If your hosts don't have small children, and you do, then remind them to childproof. Also, bring some toys and books that might entertain your child if you think your hosts may not be equipped to entertain your little ones.

Try to be a good guest, by continuing to remain a responsible parent. Getting quietly drunk on the sofa while waiting to be fed by someone else may seem appealing, but if your toddler is running circles between the legs of the chef, your lack of care and control won't be appreciated.

Just because their granny loves to see the children doesn't mean she can cope with them, and their excitement, for the whole time. So stay involved, be ready to remove the children to the fresh air to give everyone a few minutes breathing space. Don't overstay your welcome. Best that the exhausted meltdown happens in the car or at your home than on their granny's kitchen floor.

My final tip, in terms of preparation, is not to bite off more than you can chew. If you have children, don't feel obliged to host the entire extended family. If you are run ragged trying to cook and clean for a big group, then chances are you'll be short and snappy with the children and that is just a recipe for rows and recriminations.

Christmas dinner is still dinner. For all of the extended and intricate preparation, it will still be food that gets eaten, hopefully enjoyed, and ideally the opportunity for real togetherness, chat and fun.

For me, Christmas is about stopping, pausing after the busyness of the year, giving thanks for the goodness and recharging the batteries for the year ahead.

All of the rest of it is just bling. So when in doubt, wind it back rather than wind it up.

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