As a Jewish kid, I found Christmas to be one of the most laid-back holidays of the year. My family passed the day with a potluck turkey feast (hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!) and a few trinkets to keep the younger kids busy. No one dressed up and there were no expectations. Holiday stress? I just didn’t get it.
That’s until I staged my very first Christmas—the real McCoy this time. Unwilling to give in completely to the holiday hard sell, my Christian-born husband and I gave our boys just three modest toys each. I’ll never forget one son’s crestfallen face when our gifts paled in comparison to the massive loot his friends had said Santa would bring, or the stress that ensued.
According to Dr. Michael Ungar, an associate professor at Dalhousie University’s School of Social Work in Halifax, Christmas can turn the sweetest of children into greedy, needy, sleepless zombies. “It’s up to us parents to show our kids what Christmas really means,” says Dr. Ungar. If you’re fixated on the perfect tree, meal and presents instead of spending quality time with the family, he says, then you’re not likely to get your preschooler’s best behaviour.
OK, next year you really will find a way to simplify. In the meantime, here’s how to deal with a child who’s undergone a holiday personality transplant.
When your sweetie’s sweet tooth turns him sour, you’re usually at the point of no return. Even if you think you can limit your child’s sugar intake, there will be school parties and visits to granny that destroy the best-laid plans.
THE FIX Rather than constantly telling your children “no,” says Dr. Ungar, ask them, “Are you hungry? How does your tummy feel right now?” And since kids may hoard when they’re afraid they’ll miss out, try, “Why don’t you take one or two things, then come back?” You can also promise to take extra treats home, but store them out of sight. More than likely, your child will forget.
The holidays can be confusing for kids ““ months of commercials and flyers crank their expectations sky-high, and when those expectations aren’t met, they’re supposed to be gracious about it.
THE FIX Even when her daughter, Chloe, was in her toy-crazy preschool years, Toronto mom Mari Jensen asked relatives to rein in gift giving. “I ask them to buy Chloe stuff she needs rather than toys for Christmas—clothes, money for her RESP, sports equipment. I keep toys to two or three things that she has been really wanting.”
On the day of the “big opening,” pace yourselves, suggests Dr. Ungar. Take turns opening each gift so that everyone can ogle it. “There’s something inside us that makes us appreciate a gift more when it’s admired by others,” he says.
Santa’s Sleepless Helper
The cookies and milk have been set out. Santa’s flying through the sky and will squeeze down the chimney any second. With little bodies tingling with excitement, how’s anyone supposed to sleep?
THE FIX Make sure your child gets loads of exercise the day before Santa’s visit, suggests Dr. Ungar. Tobogganing with an uncle or skating with big cousins will help to ensure your little one falls asleep early enough for Santa and his lovely (but exhausted) assistants to get their work done before midnight.
The Christmas Cling-On
The only thing more difficult than preparing a turkey dinner is doing it with a 35-pound kid attached to your leg. But when small children are overwhelmed, holiday clinginess is a reality.
THE FIX If you are trying to do too much, then do less, says Dr. Ungar. Ask someone else to mash the potatoes. At the same time, it’s also important to teach your child about respectful distance, he says. “After all, parents have things to do, too. Attention can be given like waves breaking on a beach. A child needs a big hug and some focused attention—and then she’ll likely feel satisfied to go and explore.”
CHRISTMAS DAY TIP
For maximum meltdown avoidance, let your kids set the schedule for the day. Vicki Cunningham of Port Moody, B.C., says that helped stave off tantrums when her kids were in their preschool years. “They wait all year for Christmas. To make them wait for a few more hours on Christmas Day is just torture,” she says.