When a special holiday comes around, in particular the festive season, it is really common for our children to have big feelings. If you have children who are old enough to get excited, I’m pretty sure that you’ll have experienced this strange phenomenon. If you have a toddler, maybe you’ve noticed they seem unusually overwhelmed. It’s likely that you; like me, will have wondered why on earth your children are behaving so out of character, when you’re trying so hard to make this time of year so magical for them!
Don’t worry; it is not just your child, or your family, that struggles around special occasions. There are lots of reasons why this can happen in the most happy, joyful occasions so I am talking about managing everyone’s big feelings to restore a feeling of calm to an intense period.
Where are all the big feelings coming from?
So, what is going on? What’s leading to all of these big feelings? I know that as the festive season approaches, my already long to-do list quickly becomes a seemingly never-ending and increasingly stressful set of tasks. I have so much running through my mind that even in the times when I aim to relax and be present with my children, I am still fairly distracted. I want them to go to bed at a reasonable time so that I can get on with all of the important planning for their special Christmas! It sounds so silly to write it down like that. I want them to just settle themselves and not need me so much, so that I can have time to plan a wonderful series of festive events which will show them how much I love them! “Making magical memories” can take a lot of time and effort, after all.
My children seem to want an extra drink, one more cuddle, another story. They need desperately to discuss the meaning of life, or simply will not put their pyjamas on. Often during holiday times, our family rhythms can become disrupted with later bedtimes and changes in predictability. Our children, whilst not needing set routines, often cope better when they have little rituals or reminders of what is coming next. It is important to remember that while we may have had an exciting festive evening out, we may have got back, quickly got PJs on and forgotten about (or rushed bedtime and so left out) singing their favourite bedtime song. Little rituals that help our children to feel safe and secure. When my children seem clingy, needing more reassurance or are less settled, it helps me to look and see if I can bring about a bit more predictability into our family rhythms and predictability can be pretty short on the agenda with so many “out of the ordinary” festive treats.
During the busy festive season many of us will have more events to attend. We may be visiting different houses, laden with gifts and treats. At these times, we may have a tendency to expect much more of our children, in terms of their behaviour being “good”, with people who they may not feel very familiar or comfortable. Whilst new experiences can be novel and fun, our children still have a very human need for predictability and these experiences can sometimes be anything but predictable.
Added to these unpredictable experiences, our children are reminded frequently (whether they celebrate Christmas or not!) of a certain man in a red suit who will be visiting ”if they’re good”! They receive these messages in the home, through the media, at school, at the supermarket checkout, at church… the list goes on! Everywhere our children go, they are told to be good! Be good! Make sure you’re on the nice list!
When you think about it, it is quite a lot of pressure, isn’t it? What if they messed up that day? Argued with their sister?
I haven’t even mentioned the elf on the shelf who is often watching and reporting back…
The anticipation of the festive season, the culmination of a year of trying to be “good” and the excitement of what is to come, can lead to a heady mix of feelings which can easily spill over. The hopes are high, but the disappointments can be felt even more keenly at this time. Our children desperately want to do the right thing, to maintain their connection to us. Any notion that we disapprove of their behaviour at this time can result in them feeling overwhelmed much more easily.
So what can we do to support our children?
Knowing that our children are built with mechanisms to discharge these difficult feelings can help us to help them.
Our children are all unique. Our children will each process and understand things in their own ways. One child may happily accept something that another cannot bear. Our children don’t always process things the way we expect them to, so just as we would accept and support a friend who was struggling, we can prepare to stay present with our children when they seem to be struggling – moving in closer to them and offering our presence to them as a port during their storm. I recently heard the term “loan them our calm”, and whilst this is not always easy to do, the value of offering our child a safe space to offload their feelings while we show them we can handle their big feelings, can be invaluable to our children. They borrow from us the regulation that their bodies and brains are unable to manage alone.
Setting aside a few minutes to play and get our children giggling can be immeasurably helpful. If we spend five or ten minutes before leaving to visit relatives or head out to a Carol concert, playfully connecting with our child, the benefits can be enormous. Our child can offload tensions and relax in the knowledge that their connection with you is strong. Some tried and tested playful techniques include
Power reversal games – where you let the child ‘win’ by appearing inept, weak, clumsy or powerless. A bit of slapstick can be useful here.
Filling their love cup games – a particular favourite in my house is that I say I love them so much I wish I could be with them all of the time, every single second – and then I “accidentally” cover myself in invisible superglue and hug them – resulting in us being stuck together…sometimes in quite amusing positions! I could then ramp up the giggles by saying “It’s ok, your granny will not mind if we are stuck together when we get there.!” Of course they will often shriek and tell me I’m so silly. Or, they’ll wriggle away to prove how strong they are and they get to feel a little bit more powerful and in control. Lots of tension-relieving laughter generally ensues.
Children are not built to hold on to these feelings of disappointment, worry and stress. Their feelings come out in their behaviour, meaning they may seem to be causing mischief or suddenly be unable to listen to you. It can help to step in here and gently insist that they listen, setting a limit on their behaviour such as “I won’t let you climb on there….” or “I cannot let you have any [insert item] right now.” Once the limit is set, we can sit with our child to gently support them as they process the emotions that come up. This will likely be expressed through crying, or perhaps what would be termed a tantrum. It is important to recognise that children have in-built mechanisms which enable them to release their big feelings through crying, expressing their disappointment, frustration and anger, through laughter, or even through writhing and vigorously moving their bodies.
Their bodies are built for this release, and if we can stay present and accepting of them, whilst holding a limit, they will feel our love for them and will afterwards become less rigid, more flexible and able to hear us again.
What our children need from us is simple – a loving and calm presence to borrow regulation from until they have released their big feelings. In theory, this sounds easy to provide – we love our children, and we want them to feel our love. But in reality it is often complicated by our own feelings. We may very well feel criticism from others. It is not common for adults to truly appreciate how useful and important it is for children to cry. However, if a friend is upset, we will often support them by saying “have a good cry”. The same support can be offered to our children, who need a parent to listen and care for them during times when they feel very overwhelmed.
It can be hard to know what to say to other adults who don’t agree with your parenting, or don’t agree with how you are dealing with your child’s behaviour. During the festive season we are more likely to encounter different viewpoints – and advocating for yourself and your child in these moments can be tricky. Phrases such as “Thank you for understanding that he’s overwhelmed”, “We will go into the spare room and have a cuddle,” or “I’m glad she’s not bottling it up! I hope she will always come to me,” can all help to advocate for yourself and your child, showing you are capable of making the choices that are right for your family.
Release yourself from “perfection”
Festivities, activities, elf on the shelf, Christmas carols, Christmas Eve boxes, having hot chocolate with marshmallows in new pjs on Christmas Eve… or just collapsing together on the sofa some evenings and snuggling. There are so many “traditions” out there and in the age of social media, with the pressure of Instagram-worthy photos and pages of Pinterest inspiration, it can really feel that we aren’t doing quite enough to make magical memories for our children. To this I say I completely hear you. As a mum of three I feel this pressure too. And I know that our children deserve wonderful festive memories to treasure – but it’s important to remember that the most important part of those memories isn’t the present, the expense, or how much you’ve run yourself ragged. Our children want to see us, connect to us, snuggle up with us and they want us to delight in them. That’s the festive magic that they’re really going to treasure.
It’s OK for you to struggle too
Ok, but what about those times when you simply are overwhelmed, perhaps you spent hours painstakingly decorating the Christmas tree to walk in and find your child ‘helpfully’ rearranging the baubles, and you shout at them (full disclosure – this absolutely happened to me).
Acknowledging that you messed up when you shouted, and offering your child a heartfelt apology can go a long way. We are allowed to make mistakes as parents. In fact, it is healthy for our children to see us making mistakes and learning from them. It is in our modelling of how to repair a relationship that has gone off track that our children learn so much about human relationships. It is how they learn what apologies are and that mistakes happen, it is what we do next that counts. It can be tough though, to know we have lost our temper and upset our child. It can be hard to sit with them, especially if they cry harder as we’re apologising. But it is so helpful to make amends for our actions. Once our child has truly been held as they expressed their feelings, they will feel our love for them and our willingness to stay present even in the deeply uncomfortable moments. We stayed with them when they really needed us, and that is our love for them – in action.
And don’t forget you!
One final point I’d like to make is that all human beings need someone to turn to, who will listen to us as we offload our own big feelings. Children and adults alike aren’t built to shoulder their emotions alone – thus having a support network to turn to can help parents to navigate difficult times. Calling a friend and asking for five minutes of listening while you get the events of the day off your chest can help at any time. During the festive season however, it can be easy to forget to reach out, or to feel that people will be too busy to support you. In reality, a text in a WhatsApp group reaching out is likely to be met with a supportive “want to talk?” reply. Or an offer of a meet up for a coffee, cake and a supportive ‘I’ve been there too’ hug.
If you’re really struggling to be able to connect with a support network for whatever reason, it can help to find another way to release your inner tensions. I find watching my favourite comedian and getting the laughter flowing tends to help – or a particular song can help the tears that are welling up begin to flow. Perhaps you have a favourite tearjerker film (mine is Marley and Me, which I have to watch alone as I become a hideous sobbing puddle, but during the festive season I find many films will lead to a healthy cry! Love Actually is perfect as it is a mix of everything. This blog could have simply said “Watch Love Actually. You’ll feel better!”) Find an outlet, is my point. It’s absolutely ok to let those feelings flow.
Just as we can sit with our children and accept their feelings, it’s important for us to remember our own feelings as parents are absolutely valid. When we can accept our feelings, we begin to accept ourselves for who we are. We can have more compassion for those around us and that is a lovely gift to give, during the Festive season and always.
Claire Haines- Connect.Nurture.Grow.
Claire lives in Lancashire with her three beautiful children (ranging from toddler to teen) and husband Jason. Claire’s heart lies in developing respectful relationships. She believes it is so important to empower parents to understand their children more deeply, so they may have calmer, more connected and happier lives with their families.
Claire is a ‘dance mum’ and spends time (and money!) watching her daughters dance rehearsals and competitions. Claire has MS and enjoys sitting down with a good cup of coffee, knitting, and loves singing along to her favourite songs, along with her children.
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