I wrote recently about what it’s like parenting a child with autism at Christmas and I find myself continuing to reflect on the challenges different families experience at this time of the year. One of the topics under discussion in parenting forums this week is ‘Should children be punished for bad behaviour leading up for Chistmas?’, more specifically, should they be threatened that Santa is watching and won’t give them presents?
One side of the argument, is that children should be told that Santa (or a designated Elf on the Shelf) is watching and will punish children by leaving them a lump of coal (or a potato) in their Christmas stocking if they are naughty in December. Others suggest spending Christmas morning in bed and refusing to give out presents until 4pm (or a few days later) once children are suitably chastened. Some suggest that each time children are really naughty, a present is removed from under the tree and the child has to give it to charity.
My heart goes out to parents who are exhausted and struggling at the end of a long year, wishing for some much needed rest for themselves to recharge batteries, and all of the stress (logistical and financial) that planning Christmas involves. The reality, however, is that we need to constantly put on our superhero costumes, dig deep for forgotten reserves of energy, and remember that our tiny egotistical bundles of dark energy are exhausted children struggling with a see-saw of excitement, fear, change, and emotional confusion. They are also tired at the end of the year; they are tired from growing, from learning, from trying to keep their emotions in check, and they are likely to explode at home because that’s where they feel safe to do so. They are trusting us to love them unconditionally (even if it’s through gritted teeth).
Stop and have a think about what may be triggering your kids to explode. Are they tired? Are they hungry? Are they eating a lot of ‘seasonal treats’? Are they excited about school holiday adventures but then lashing out at the end of the day (or the next day)?
School holidays mean that all of their usual structure has suddenly disappeared and that can be as frightening as it is exciting. Talk with them about what routines are going to stay in place (i.e. will television still be restricted to certain times of day, will bedtime still be at the same time, will parents still be working on certain days). Come up with a visual planning chart for the school holidays and talk with your kids about any planned activities, holidays, play dates, or family visits. Make a list of activities they can do at home (or cut them up in strips and have them pull them out of a hat).
Talk to them about any expectations you have: to spend time reading a book each day, do an art activity, spend time outside, and play quietly with toys? Some kids might feel more comfortable having their free time largely unstructured, while others may thrive on digital timers and structured activities for at least part of each day.
If you’re at home with the kids, take the opportunity to try changes to diet. Put them on a wholefoods diet as much as possible and avoid anything with artificial additives and preservatives (they have a cumulative effect in the body, especially in little bodies, and can have a big impact on behavior). Drink water and milk, eat lots of fresh fruit, make salads, do home baking. Ditch the muesli bars, chips, and cookies, and make smoothies, carrot cake, or flourless pancakes. Help get the kids involved in meal planning, supermarket shopping, meal preparation, and gardening.
We spend eleven months of the year taking responsibility for our parenting decisions, lets not shift the blame to Santa just because Christmas is approaching. If you want to factor Santa into discussions with your kids then try shifting the discussion from a negative / blame framework to a positive one; instead of threatening coal, try saying something like ‘Mum and Dad and Santa can see how hard you’ve been working all year and it seems like you’re tired and struggling at the moment.” Talk with them about the things they like about themselves and feel they are doing well, and also about the things they feel are difficult. Praise them when they are doing things well.
Consider giving only a few small presents from Santa that they can play with before the main gifts are unwrapped. Maybe I’m selfish but I want my daughter to be thrilled that I’ve spent time saving up and planning her main present rather than thinking it’s magically appeared from Santa’s workshop! Knowing that their main presents have come from family reinforces an understanding of being loved.
Spend time in the lead up to Christmas talking about what it means to your family. In some parts of the world, it’s a time of beautiful lights, decorations, and fattening foods because the outside world is pitch black most of the day and covered in snow (which might look pretty on Christmas cards but is icy and cold most of the time). It’s a little bit different when Christmas is celebrated in the middle of summer with blue skies and sunshine! Even if you’re not celebrating the birth of Christ, talk about why you are giving gifts as a family. Talk about celebrating all the good things you have, the things you are grateful for, and the people that you love. Maybe you could make a gratitude jar, flower, or tree. Older kids might like to keep a gratitude journal for the holidays (bonus – it also helps them practice their writing!)
Step away from the commercial aspects of the holidays, help them to make their own Christmas cards, make Christmas crackers, and write letters to friends they’re going to miss over the holidays. Encourage them to think about others by choosing something they like to eat to donate to a food parcel collection, or by mowing the lawns for grandparents, or washing cars during church service.
Tell them every single day that you love them.
For more helpful strategies – consider attending a free Incredible Years Parenting Programme which provides useful strategies for play, praise, academic, social and emotional coaching, positive reinforcement, limit setting, natural and logical consequences, problem-solving and effective communication skills.