Parents: A Holiday Recipe for (a little) Sanity

Erin Belanger, LMHC

Recipe for a Holiday Season

1 Month Everyday family life with structure and routine removed

100 Unrealistic expectations

A few Excited, over-sugared kids

1 fistfull Over-commercialization

30 Restless nights of sleep

Too many Financial burdens

20 Demands for time from friends and family (all for the same day)

A pinch Desperate hope

Directions: Add ingredients to a small pot all at once and bring to an immediate rolling boil while stirring vigorously. Do not boil over or burn.

Who’s brave enough to admit that they try the above recipe every year and hold onto the expectation (or desperate hope) that it will not boil over or burn? Though we may not all admit it, many of us try to jump into the holiday season with hope and plans for love, giving, togetherness, and peace. The holidays, however, bring a whole new level of stress to the game of parenting. Hardworking parents who are managing a home, children with various needs, and jobs (not to mention extended family and finances) suddenly find themselves faced with changes in routine, and overwhelming expectations and pressures that can cause the whole pot to boil over quickly! The most frustrating and sad part of this is that we want so badly to have a joyful and connected holiday season with our loved ones. But all of the stress confounds our efforts to do just that. So, what can we do about it?

1) Stay calm… don’t panic!

It’s easy for us to lose patience with just about everyone and everything when we are managing life stressors, balancing holiday expectations, and breathing through little ones nipping at our heels asking for every cookie, candy cane, and toy this world has to offer. Staying calm sounds impossible, but this is the most important step to having a healthy and happy holiday season. If we can’t keep our cool and manage our reactions, our kids definitely won’t be able to.

To understand what we need to do to stay calm, we can look at what we know about good parenting. If we want to give a child the best chance at being healthy and happy, we must make sure they are eating on time, getting out to play and burn off energy, sleeping well, and connecting with friends and family. If we as parents are going to be able to stay calm, we need to be taken care of too!

If you are in a good place this season, you will be able to help your children be in a good place too. Maybe then everyone will still like each other when this season is all said and done.

2) Stay tuned in to, and predict, your child’s needs

If we, as parents, are taking care of ourselves, we will be better able to tune in to and predict what our children need and then meet those needs. Holidays have a way of shredding schedules into teeny tiny little bits of what you had once worked so hard to build. As any parent who has had to work with a hungry or tired child can tell you, predicting needs and scheduling time to respond to them before they hit catastrophic levels is key to raising kids while staying sane. Kids (believe it or not) are creatures of habit, who feel safe and secure when they can predict their environment. If kids don’t know what to expect, they feel insecure. No wonder that unscheduled time leads to tantrums. Of course, if you then add a child that didn’t get lunch on time and missed their nap… you’re in for a long day or two. Try to avert disaster with the following:

1 - Flexibility (and a little creative forethought) allows schedules and expectations to be shifted with minimal disruption and maximal fun. Flexibility is only possible, however, if you can tune in to and anticipate what your children need. This might look like structuring healthy outlets and activities to calm down, bringing healthy snacks/drinks to avoid sugar rushes from holiday cookies, or taking the long route so that the kids can nap in the car for another 10 minutes.

2 - Remember that difficult behavior is not a child “being bad”, rather it is communication about an unmet need. Don’t try to discipline a child who is acting out because they are tired, hungry, or worried. Instead, meet their need. Give them food: don’t worry about it being perfect, just give them something semi-nutritious that they will agree to eat. Give them sleep: rock them, stroll them, drive them… whatever it takes to calm their agitated nervous system down. Give them security: talk to them about feeling unsure, tell them what they can expect, and understand for them that they feel scared or upset.

So if your 8 year old is up later than usual for a dinner get-together at your sister’s house and they are beginning to demand or whine or get generally cranky about something seemingly inconsequential… don’t respond with crankiness and say “I’m never letting you stay up late again if this is how you’re going to act!” This doesn’t help children understand what they feel, and it will end up leading to a more stressful and upsetting interaction. Instead, find a quiet spot and check in. Tell them that you’ve noticed they’re getting upset easily and you’re worried that they’re too tired because of how late it is. Give them options for how to handle it - “We can stay here and you can play a quiet game with someone and have a small snack, or we can get going so that you can get some sleep and feel better. What would you prefer to do right now?” Follow through with their choice while maintaining an awareness of how they are handling their choice and whether you need to change it. For example, “I know you said that you wanted to stay here and play a quiet game, but I’ve noticed that you aren’t playing nicely. I think you’re just too tired at this point, and we really need to get some rest. We can make a plan to play games another time.” Stay calm by focusing on what your child’s behavior is communicating and respond to that.

3) Good enough is good enough

Don’t try to please everyone - that is surely a recipe for complete and utter disaster (not an exaggeration). Your kids will be happy with the little things… your parents, aunts, uncles, etc. might be disappointed. But they’re adults; they can deal with it. Your focus is on taking care of your immediate family.

Let kids get involved and stop worrying about the end result. So they wrap gifts that look like a monkey wrapped them, or they make cookies that look like Christmas threw up… the process is more important than the result. Kids are practicing to be adults… keep your eye on reality and don’t get distracted by the stress of making gifts that look like they came out of Pinterest.

Big picture - good enough is good enough! Your sanity will thank you this holiday season if you can let go of a few expectations and settle for real connections in imperfect moments.

4) Presence is the best of all presents

In the end, the most amazing opportunities that the holidays afford us are the ones where we can reconnect with each other. This year, maybe more than others, has been chaotic, painful and overwhelming on many levels. This holiday season is an opportunity to bring the year to a close on a different note so that we might begin 2017 in a healthier and happier space. Embrace the chaos of childlike fun, predict what you can, be ready for the unpredictable, and go with the flow as you share your traditions and celebrate love for each other this season.