8 Tips for Surviving Christmas with Children in the Early Years
In case you hadn’t noticed, Christmas is coming. In many ways, it seems that the Christmas build-up kicks off a little earlier every year. Throw young children into the mix and there you have a potential recipe for weeks of magical excitement that can easily warp into something much less magical and much more frenzied.
Here, we talk with Mrs Faye Messinger, our Head of Early Years and mother to two young boys to brainstorm ways to help pace the festive magic, temper the Christmas excitement and above all, safeguard your sanity over the holiday period!
First off, do you notice a difference in your Early Years pupils’ behaviour in the run up to Christmas?
As we would naturally expect, most children experience excitement in the run up to Christmas. In the younger Early Years aged pupils, these feelings of excitement can easily develop into feeling lost and overwhelmed, which is especially common in the younger pupils who are unable to anticipate what they are actually excited for. One of the things we commonly notice is that these younger children can become much more emotional because they do not yet have the skills required to regulate their excitement and prevent it from escalating into overwhelm. The older Early Years pupils still tend to be incredibly excited, but it feels a bit more magical as they have memories from the previous Christmas to help things feel a bit more predictable.
How do you see parents being affected by the run up to Christmas?
Of course, Christmas can be such an enjoyable and special time, but it would be disingenuous of me say it didn’t come with its difficulties. As a teacher and fellow parent, I’ve noticed that there can be a huge amount of pressure to bask in the Christmas magic whilst the children are still young. There is this idea that you only get 9 ‘special’ Christmases with your child whilst they still believe in Father Christmas so there is a big obligation to ‘get it right’ and ‘make it amazing’. Additionally, over the Christmas period, we tend to see our wider friends and family and may experience an underlying tension as we hope that our children present well and can cope with everything the festivities may throw at them. And finally, and most obviously, Christmas for many comes with a colossal financial responsibility that can cause a massive amount of stress.
One of the things we as adults sometimes forget is how pressured Christmas can also be for young children, especially when it comes to managing their own behaviour. The promise of a visit from Father Christmas is normally made on the condition that children are ‘good’ and increased socialising often comes with the requirement or expectation for children to be on their best behaviour. This can be incredibly hard for young children who developmentally do not yet have the tools to achieve this.
Do you have any specific tips on managing Christmas excitement levels/burnout in young children?
Build in downtime
For young children, Christmas can be a huge sensory overload, with lots of new people, places, tastes, concepts and ideas and relentless activities, visitors and trips. If possible, try to build some downtime into the agenda to help children decompress. One of the things my parents used to do with me and my sibling on Christmas Eve was turn off all the lights and look out of the window into the night sky in search of Father Christmas flying past in his sleigh. Without us realising, they were injecting some calm into the frenzy of excitement, and I consider it to be one of my most special Christmas memories.
When things are getting a little too overwhelming for our Nursery children, we often employ a grounding exercise that can easily be used by parents over Christmas. We ask the children to name three things they can see, two things they can touch and one thing they can smell to help calm them down and regulate. It’s simple but surprisingly effective.
Use social stories to set expectations
For very young children Christmas is full of new and unknown experiences. We use ‘social stories’ to educate our Early Years aged pupils on all aspects of life and in the context of Christmas they could be easily employed by parents to break down abstract events into something more understandable to help their children prepare for what is about to happen and what they can and can’t do. For example, “We are going to go in the car for 15 minutes to visit Father Christmas at the garden centre that we have been to before. When we get there we will have to line up for a little while but you will be able to have a snack whilst we wait in the line. While we are waiting you will have to stand close to me”…etc. The point is to relate these new events/activities to things they can understand (such as the place we have been to before) with the aim to prevent the anxiety or overwhelm in the lead up and participation of a new activity.
Structure in time to burn off energy
A lot of Christmas activities and events are held indoors and are actually fairly sedentary which can lead to a lot of stocked up energy. One of the things I have found useful with my boys is to structure in plenty of time for physical activity, especially before events that require them to sit still or don’t offer much scope for running around.
Don’t forget mealtimes
Whilst we are hosting guests or attending Christmas gatherings and activities set mealtimes can go out of the window as we snack on the festive food on offer. This is fine for adults who can recognise when they are hungry and have the ability and agency to respond whereas children are much less able to which means they are susceptible to becoming ‘hangry’. Mealtimes also offer a predictable structure to a day which can be useful when normal daily routines are relaxed.
Remember that children will be children
It is probably wise to remember that children in their very nature are energetic, curious and optimistic which combined with Christmas excitement can hinder their listening skills and accentuate their natural liveliness. During the festive period, it can be helpful to lower your expectations of them and let them ultimately act their age.
Advent calendars can be great
Young children can really struggle with the concept of time. Whilst it is impossible to deny that some advent calendars are becoming more and more extravagant, they can be useful in helping a child understand and mentally manage the countdown to Christmas, especially as children often respond well to visual explanations.
You don’t have to do everything
It may be useful to remember that whilst children are still very young, they do not know what they are missing out on. There is no need to attend every Christmas activity, and it may be worth selecting a couple which you can build on each year, to help keep things mostly predictable and familiar.
When our Early Years aged pupils appear to be on the cusp of having big feelings we often try and talk through their sensations in the moment in a way that they can understand. For example, “you seem to be fizzy, what does it feel like?”. If appropriate, we also ask them to help suggest ways to help them ‘feel better’. Quite often this alone can help to deescalate a situation as they start to understand their own emotions and how to regulate them.
What do you see as the biggest ‘triggers’ for Christmas related overwhelm?
I would say for many young children, it is lack of predictability or structure that leads to challenging or overly emotional behaviour. Routines and structure help children to feel safe and make sense of their world. Removing this can throw them into turmoil as they struggle to anticipate what is happening next and what is expected of them.
Do you have any final thoughts?
This is aimed at myself just as much as anyone else, but when it comes to creating Christmas magic I think its useful to remember what it was that made Christmas magical for you as a child. I am almost certain it wasn’t the endless queuing in grottos, an instagrammable Christmas tree or traipsing around light displays but much simpler, smaller, people-centred things. Over the past few years, I have had to remind myself that I do not necessarily share the same idea of what feels magical with my young boys and I try to keep in mind their definition of magic when planning Christmas.
Above all, and no pressure, try and enjoy the festive for what it is. Merry Christmas!