Being a parent at Christmas can be both wonderful and stressful. The holidays are an exciting time of year. There are so many activities, treats and parties to enjoy. The whole family has a sense of anticipation. After all, it is a season for joy.
So why is being a parent at Christmas so stressful?
Kids out of their normal routines and hyped up on sugary treats can be cranky. Parents stressing about everything on their to-do list and money shortages often don’t respond well to cranky children. Suddenly, there is not so much joy flowing around.
Unique learners have even less tolerance for these shifts (though exciting) in routine and diet. Parents – and teachers – of unique learners must work hard to stay calm and collected. Read on for tips on how you can do just that.
The Christmas we moved our two small children from a one-bedroom apartment in Campbell, CA to a three-bedroom house on a grassy hill in Redding, CA, I had so much to be grateful for.
Our new business had been welcomed and appeared to be supported by the community. We were thrilled with our new house and new life.
It was a good Christmas.
My husband and I usually gave each other a homemade cassette tape of music for a Christmas gift. The year prior, however, we modernized ourselves and gave one another a brand new CD. This year, this fabulous year, we each gave one another 10 CDs. That felt like the most extravagant of extravagant Christmas gifts that beautiful Christmas morning!
It was lovely.
Not perfect though. Trouble was brewing.
Our children, age 1 and 1 ½, hadn’t slept the night before and had no interest in presents on Christmas morning. At mid-morning, their nap time was a no-go.
After a cranky lunch, and discontentment expressed over the Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too video, a repeat attempt at napping failed.
To make matters worse, my parents were visiting and providing a disapproving audience. It was like being in a fishbowl with our family dynamics being played out on stage.
Our living room at home was set up with only a few bits of garage sale furniture, inviting first steps and ball tossing for small children. It turns out there was more room for furniture in a three-bedroom house compared to our previous one-bedroom apartment. We had many “great halls” in that house completely barren of furniture. Perfect kid home, right? Wrong. My visiting parents had different values about balls in the house. And running too much indoors. And loud voices, small curious hands and a variety of other activities that could not be anticipated, but were surely in conflict with Mom and Dad’s view of parenting.
My parents tolerated three bounces of the ball before ball bouncing become “bad behavior”. I found it hard to know where to draw the line or what the line was.
Will Every Christmas Be This Hard?
So, what is it about the holiday season that makes parenting more difficult?
Cheerful good wishes, such as, “Merry Christmas!”, “Have a happy winter break”, and “Have a great holiday season!” are commonly heard this time of year. During the cold, late December nights, through the early January shortened daylight hours, many of us welcome such good wishes. Never-the-less, these days can be very challenging to new parents as they must meld their emerging parenting morals and values with that of their host/guest family. In my case, that included my parents, Uncle Bob’s family and cousin Lisa (plus her guest).
This is difficult enough with typical children. All the excitement, the intense anticipation about what is inside those brightly wrapped packages, fascinating (and delicate) ornaments dangling within easy reach. It is so very tempting to touch and play with these new and beautiful things!
With unique learners, the stress is even greater. What is overwhelming for typical children can cause complete melt-downs for unique learners as they try, unsuccessfully, to process all the stimulation.
Strategies used to calm unique learners work for all children – and adults too. Here are five things you can do to minimize meltdown (in all members of the family):
Adjust Your Expectations
Throughout winter break, recognize the challenges to your normal structure and rhythm of day to day life within your home. Know that your own expectations can be the biggest problem.
I expected I could get a pie in the oven in under 60 minutes. With two babies, it took me all day. Flour was all over the kitchen. It was Christmas and I was focused on the stress of making a pie versus the enjoyment of myself and my family.
Reduce Holiday Commitments
Thin down your social calendar to a level that is healthy for your entire group. This will vary depending on the ages of your children and the special needs of your unique learner. Don’t allow your early excitement and enthusiasm to overload your schedule. This often creates the opposite of the fun time you anticipated. Allow your best judgment to take first place over what others want or might think if you turn down an invitation.
Above all, don’t stress about the pie!
Watch for Signs of Overload
If I could have anticipated and better understood the upset to our daily routine, I could have watched for red flags and put myself in “time out”. I could have planned a special time with my toddlers that comforted and eased the upset.
Creating a plan to deal with the overload in advance is very helpful. This can help you recognize the signposts when things are going sideways in your day. Deep breaths, a little break, and carry on with a sense of humor.
It is obvious that a plan to limit our children’s (both typical and unique learner children) stress is important. However, it is even more important to manage your own stress! All children react to their parent’s stress levels. The more stressed and overwhelmed you are, the worse your children will cope (and behave).
Know the Signs
One teacher I worked with could sense when his students were drifting. He said he could tell when children were moving around to help them concentrate more and when children were past the point of self-alertness strategies and needing help in getting their concentration back on track. His remedy was always physical movement for his students.
Even at home, there is a difference between moving around and messing around or playing and teasing. Recognizing when children need help shifting their mindset can help family days be calm days.
Strategies for Calming the Chaos
Movement games, new and stimulating group activities or board games, as well as outdoor adventures, all invite a welcome change of pace for children and adults. Perhaps plan on a brief daily family outing or a silly dance time over the course of the winter break. Keep in mind that the holiday season can be a time for your family to recharge together, and create fun memories in the process. (Check out this recent article about managing excitement.)