When you’re the parent of small children, Christmas can be a holiday of two halves. On the one hand, there’s the magic: the twinkling lights, joyful carols, Santa Clause. On the other hand, there's the meltdown-inducing sensory overload of the season...
‘As magical as the holidays can be, it’s also a time that can easily become overwhelming for youngsters,’ says Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, author of The Tantrum Survival Guide. ‘Children can become overtired because there’s so much to do. They can become disorientated because there’s so much different stuff to do and they’ve lost their normal, comforting, daily routines. And, on top of all that, little ones are often dealing with lots of novel experiences – new relatives and friends, new smells and tastes, and new sights and sounds. It’s common for children to reach a point when the excitement tips over into something that feels oppressive or even threatening.'
And, when that happens – boom! ‘When a child gets that overwhelmed feeling, their nervous system goes into the fight/flight/freeze response,’ says Rebecca. ‘Their brain goes into auto-pilot and they can’t think straight, because their body is responding to what they perceive to be a threat.’ So, your youngster might become agitated – crying, being cranky, lashing out – or they might do the opposite and become very tired, or disengage from everything around them. ‘These are all normal responses to a situation that has become too much for a small child to handle,’ says Rebecca.
Just how your child reacts to feeling overwhelmed may also vary according to the situation. They might find the visual novelty of flashing fairy lights too much, or be floored by having to leave a fun Christmas party. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to help your youngster, and stop the meltdowns stealing Christmas!
Make informed choices
The first rule of Christmas is: know your child. You know if they gets ultra-cranky if they miss a nap, or get anxious when they are cuddled by someone new. You know if they're sensitive to loud noises or take a while to adjust to new surroundings. This knowledge will help you predict which aspects of Christmas may start to feel overwhelming for your youngster.
‘That’s when the second rule of Christmas comes in,’ says Rebecca. ‘Make informed choices! If you know that your baby thrives on routine and that doing too much will make them out-of-sorts, you have to make a choice about what you do.’ Do you say ‘no’ to some Christmas invitations and stay at home to keep your baby settled? Do you accept the invitations and deal with your baby getting upset when they get tired? Do you juggle the Christmas craic with your partner – taking it in turns to go out while the other stays in with your youngster? Or do you go out, but agree to come home the minute your child starts showing signs of Christmas fatigue?
‘There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions,’ says Rebecca. ‘For some people, the right choice will be having a very low-key Christmas. For other people, it will be important to be out and about. What matters is that you think about the choice you’re making, understand that the choice will have particular consequences, and work out how you’ll deal with those consequences.’
The other bonus of planning ahead is that it gives you time to think about your strategies for avoiding overwhelm. ‘Think about practical things,’ says Rebecca. ‘How are you going to make sure your baby gets the sleep they need? How are you going to give them some calm time alone with you to recharge? What are you going to do about food?’ Also, think about ways to prepare your youngster for out-of-the-ordinary Christmas activities. ‘What you can do depends on your child’s age, but the first step is to build their familiarity with what’s coming up,’ says Rebecca.
So, this could be playing some Christmas music at home, so he’s hearing the tunes in a calm, familiar environment. It could be reading books about Christmas. It could be looking through photos, so your child sees the relatives they are going to meet. ‘If you’re going to an event – like a Christmas show – or you’re going somewhere new for Christmas Day, talk to your toddler about what’s going to happen,’ says Rebecca. This means literally taking your youngster through the day ahead, and talking about what they’ll see, hear, smell.
So, when going to a show, you might explain: We’ll get in the car and we’ll drive to a big car park. Then we’ll wave goodbye to the car and walk to the theatre. We’ll see lots of grown-ups and lots of children. We’ll show a grown-up our ticket and we’ll walk into a big room filled with seats. We’ll find our special seats. There will be a stage with a big curtain at the front of the room. The lights will go out and the curtain will go up, and we’ll see people dressed in pretty clothes. They’ll tell us a story. In the middle of the story the people have a rest and the curtain goes down. If we want, we can go to the loo or have an ice cream. Then the curtain goes back up.
‘Talking to your toddler about what’s going to happen helps them to feel in control,’ says Rebecca. ‘That makes them feel more relaxed about all the new experiences ahead of them – because they know that this is what’s meant to be happening.’
It’s also important to come prepared with the things that your youngster might need in an unfamiliar or exciting environment. ‘Bring a backpack full of snacks that your youngster likes, a special blanket or cuddly toy, and something that they like to play with,’ says Rebecca. ‘That way if they don’t like the food at the party, or they need something familiar to reassure them, you have those things to hand.’
And before they go into the unfamiliar environment – give him a boost. ‘Give him a big cuddle or walk in holding his hand,’ says Rebecca. ‘That physical closeness is hugely reassuring for children.’
Transition with care
With all this preparation in place, you next need to consider another tricky area for young children – moments of transition. ‘These are the moments when they have to change what they’re doing,’ says Rebecca. ‘Putting a coat on, taking a coat off. Getting into a car, getting out of a car. There are more of these moments of change during the holidays and they’re difficult for kids because they (usually) don’t get to control them. They’re having to give up what they’re doing to follow someone else’s schedule. Plus, it can take children a long time to process your requests.’
When you ask your child to do something again and again, and your child doesn’t respond, it can be really frustrating – but this often happens because they simply haven't worked through the idea that something new needs to happen.
‘The other factor that makes transitions hard is that, for toddlers, they are an opportunity to test the boundaries,’ says Rebecca.‘ This is a developmental stage when youngsters want to assert their autonomy. The perfect way to do that is to say no when they’re asked to do something. Children of this age also have no understanding of the concept of time – they don’t get the idea that you are on a schedule, that Gran has cooked Christmas dinner and that you’re going to be late, or that the carol concert is about to start. Your youngster isn’t trying to mess up your day, they are just slow to make transitions. So, build in extra time to do everything, warn them in advance that a transition is coming up and, wherever possible, turn the transitions into a game. “Shall we have a getting-our-shoes-on race? Do you want to jump over the doorstep and make a Christmas wish? Shall we get out of the car and find one of Santa’s elves?”’
Keep your Christmas cool
Transitions work best when you stay calm and keep your sense of humour – but, in the throes of Christmas chaos, it’s easier said than done. ‘There may be things that make you feel sad or lonely at Christmas,’ says Rebecca. ‘And because children pick up very quickly on adult energy, the way you feel will affect how your child feels, and how they behave.’
Christmas is also a time when you’re around other people who have differing views on parenting techniques. ‘That can be very hard,’ says Rebecca. ‘If you know that a family member thinks you’re doing something wrong, you may try to parent in a different way, which confuses your child, who reacts, and then everyone gets overwhelmed.’
However, there are ways to avoid this happening. ‘The first thing to do is to be honest about the things that trigger you to feel worried, judged or upset,' says Rebecca. ‘That will help you to manage those feelings. Think about your own expectations – and make a conscious decision to keep them in check. And find a technique to help you feel centred. That might mean having a parenting mantra to repeat if the going gets tough: “I’m the perfect parent for my child”. Or it might mean doing a grounding exercise where you breathe deeply and slowly and think about five things you can see; four things you can touch; three things you can hear; two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This exercise helps you to be present in the moment, and to deal with what’s in front of you.’
Another way to keep the positive energy flowing at Christmas is to make sure that you and your partner are on the same page over the holidays. ‘For that to happen, spend time talking about what the holidays were like for you both as children,’ says Rebecca. What were the good parts? What were the bad parts? How do those experiences feed into what you want for your children?
‘Those conversations help you to understand what you have strong feelings about regarding Christmas,’ says Rebecca. ‘One area that often causes tension is presents. How many do you think children should have? Why? Another prickly area can be food. How many treats do you want your kids to have? How do you want to handle fussy eating if you’re eating Christmas dinner with other people? If you’ve discussed these things in advance, you’ll be able to support one another, which will help your children to feel happy and stress-free, too.’
Be their calm
Even the most prepared, calm, relaxed parent in the world may not be able to avoid their child having a Christmas meltdown. So, the final tool in your Christmas kit is knowing how to help an overwhelmed tot. ‘The most important thing to remember is that once a child has become overwhelmed and is in the middle of that fight/flight/freeze response, he needs your help to handle it and to overcome it,’ says Rebecca.
However tricky it is when your baby suddenly starts howling at Santa in the Christmas grotto, or your toddler starts throwing gingerbread men at their cousin, when your child becomes overwhelmed and starts acting out (or switching off), they cannot get on top of those feelings on their own.
Young children often don’t understand what’s upset them and, even if they do, they don’t have the language skills to articulate it. They also don’t have the brain-processing skills to soothe and regulate their own emotions. ‘Children can’t even begin to self-regulate until they’re around five or six,’ says Rebecca. ‘Your youngster needs your active support to calm down, relax and soothe their over-stimulated nervous system.’ In other words, there is no point in telling your child to stop misbehaving or warning them that they’ll have to leave the party if they don’t calm down. ‘These responses will just make your child feel more overwhelmed and out-of-control,’ says Rebecca. ‘Instead, what your youngster needs is for you to understand what they are feeling and find a personality-appropriate way to help soothe their system.’
That might be sitting down on the floor with them and telling him calmly over and over that it’s OK. It might be cuddling and rocking them. It might be taking them somewhere quiet and calm so the two of you can just be together.
It might be looking around to see what’s bothering them and helping to articulate that – ‘The music is very loud, isn’t it? Shall we go somewhere quieter?’
‘The important thing is to be present with your child, to understand that they can’t help their reaction, and to be kind,’ says Rebecca. ‘Don’t think about anyone else, just think: “What’s the best way to help my baby?”’
Real mum experiences
'In the run-up to Christmas, we focus on home-based activities: baking, making Christmas decorations, watching Christmas films. We just have one special trip out – a visit to Santa’s grotto or a ride on a festive steam train. Keeping things relaxed stops the kids from getting overwhelmed, and the bonus is that the one event we do feels extra-memorable and exciting.’ Rachel Evetts, from Darlington, is mum to Thomas and Sophie.
'I’m planning to have only a few presents under the tree for Leo. I think a small number of presents that he will really want to play with will be fun, but a huge pile of brightly wrapped goodies would tip him into a fever-pitch of excitement that would be too much. Less is more!’ Rachel Vincent-Lee, from Brighton, is mum to Leo.
'Theia always copes better when we tell her what’s going to be happening. Last Christmas we had a really busy day – we opened some presents, did a park run, visited grandparents, dropped off old toys to a charity collection, visited friends, then came home for more presents and bed. We’d gone through the day in advance and there was no upset, even though it was tiring and out of routine.’ Ria Binney from Peacehaven, is mum to Orin and Theia.
Meet the expert
Rebecca Schrag Hershberg is a clinical psychologist, author of The Tantrum Survival Guide and a mum of two; littlehousecalls.com