Nurturing children during Christmas gatherings
Christmas is a time of excitement and wonderment, it is a time when you get the opportunity to visit or host friends and family. These gatherings bring so much joy to children, they have new adventures, get lots of focused playtime and build precious bonds. It can also be a time when children experience being overstimulated, tired, out of routine, and out of their comfort zones.
For this article, I would like to raise some awareness around how we can support our children through these challenges. Whilst the article was written for 2 to 4 year-olds, the principles can be applied to all ages. I would also like to share some approaches to conversations you can have with your friends or family to raise their awareness too.
BALANCE BUSY DAYS WITH SLOW DAYS
Preparing to go away is a big job, there is packing, organising and shopping to do, so whilst it is exciting it can also be quite tiring for parents. I suggest trying to balance late nights with lazy mornings and busy days with quiet, slow days.
We have a weekly diary that goes on the fridge, with pictures on it (I’m no Picasso - imagine a tree for Forest School, a stick man for a play-date, etc) and I make sure every week that I draw a snail for at least one of the days, we call them Snail Days: we are in our shell and we are slow. My son even asks for these days sometimes and I love them too. Staying in PJ’s, lighting a fire, snuggling up on the sofa with a pile of children’s books, long baths - these days allow for lots and lots of connection time.
Here is a suggested action that you can do right now. Look at your diary put in a snail day, preferably before and after any visiting or hosting you do. I know before you go away this can be a challenge but even a few hours will support you in being calm and grounded. This quiet time gives your child space to release emotions and process experiences from the visit.
Suggested Conversation: Talk to relatives about the plans for your stay. Are there enough gaps, is there the odd quiet morning or afternoon?
BALANCE STIMULATING TIME WITH QUIET TIME
Throughout the season there may be times when things get busy, really busy. Bring into these times a consciousness around moments of quiet connecting time. Your child is away from their routine and their safe comfort zone, there may be new rules, a different bed, traveling, not to mention new dynamics.
Whenever we are away, for example at a festival, we build in quiet time every afternoon, we go to our tent on our own, snuggle with a book, have a cuddle. It brings calmness, rest, and connection.
You could also incorporate a breathing mindfulness practice into this: simply some deep breaths and a body scan to look for areas of tension. You can ask your child to breathe too, one way is to hold up a finger, breathe in by "smelling the flower", breathe out by "blowing out the candle". A word of caution - like all agendas it has to be held loosely, your child will have their own way of relaxing. The focus is on building some connection, not the process.
Suggested Conversation - When you are staying with relatives this season perhaps you can ask, ahead of time, for a place you can go to do this if you don’t have a your own guest room. This manages the expectations of your hosts about your plans so they don’t take it personally and also brings an awareness to them to look out for your child’s emotional wellbeing.
LOOK OUT FOR THE SIGNALS
Look out for the signals that your child is wanting this connection time. Look for off-track behaviour, “tantrums” (which I like to call positive emotional releases), aggression. We all know to look beyond the behaviour for the need but it helps to have this in mind when visiting family or during very stimulating activities.
Suggested Conversation: Ask relatives in advance to support you with looking out for this - its a great way to get them on board with looking for the needs behind the behavior of your child.
SUPPORT WITH CLEAR EXPECTATIONS
In communications with your child, being honest and clear about expectations and changes in routine always helps. In the early years, picture books are a great visual tool for showing the diary of events. This can be as simple as an A4 sheet of paper, lines across it for days, a picture of a bed, a car, a suitcase, your home. You can read through it like a book the day before you go away - “We're going sleep in our bed tonight, then when we wake up we're going to pack, drive to Grandma’s...” and when your away “Tomorrow we are going Ice Skating... and the day after were going to pack, drive home and sleep in our own bed again”.
One client read a picture book to her 3-year-old, it was the night before they were due to go on holiday, when they got to the part about leaving home her daughter sobbed uncontrollably for over an hour, begging her not to go on the holiday, she was having a huge emotional release about the fear of being away. When this sort of release happens just stay close and maintain eye contact, to listen and acknowledge their feelings. Children have the power to process feelings, our role in this is to offer focused attention and listen. The next morning she woke up totally excited and ready to go. Had she not had the book, the feelings would still have been there, but as they may not have had a chance to be released they may have come out in other ways, such as off-track behaviour.
BALANCE WITH ROUTINE
If you are out of routine and away, try to balance by maintaining your normal activities and rhythm in the mornings or evenings if this is possible. For example, it may be possible to replicate your bedtime routine- dinner, bath, books, bed, or your morning rhythm.
I would also try to get your child involved in packing familiar items -they can pack their favourite teddy, their favourite books, their toothbrush, and PJ’s.
You may be able to take familiar foods with you. Please be mindful that different foods can have a big effect on your child's emotional state. For me personally, when I eat raw chocolate my adrenaline is stimulated and my nervous system feels agitated, my ability to respond calmly is greatly reduced.
Suggested Conversation: On the first evening that you arrive is it possible to have time alone with your child upstairs to do a normal bed time routine? What foods or drinks could be saved for after the kids are asleep?
REGULAR CHECK IN’S
It is supportive to have regular check-ins - a time to discuss expectations and needs. For you, your child's and your hosts/guests.
Let us start with your child: If you are away, they are in a new space and routine. Now remember their job (especially if younger) is to investigate and explore; how can you support that? Again, coming back to clear expectations, when you arrive you can talk to your child about house rules - a tour of the house/garden identifying any no play areas or dangers (like ponds, wires, glass doors) would be very helpful to your child.
Regular quiet time will provide an opportunity for you to check in with your child and yourself.
Suggested Conversation: Before you arrive ask your hosts for support in making a “yes” space for your child or moving at least their most precious ornaments to a certain room or area. Let them know your child will want to investigate and check with them if they prefer any areas to be private. You could also ask your host to let you know if anything is troubling them.
ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES
Transitions can be challenging for children. Hopefully, if you have done a picture book emotions would have been released during reading that the night before. Allow ample time in your schedule to deal with issues that may arise. That way if feelings come up in your child, you can support them by having time to listen.
If you have a partner, have one of you play with your child, give them some focused 1-1 time whilst the other is loading the car. If you are a single parent it helps to arrange for a friendly neighbour to come and play with your child whilst you prepare or pack the car.
Be realistic about arrivals - if you have had hours in the car - your child will need to run around freely. If you feel that your hosts may struggle with this then perhaps you can visit a park or a playground before arriving at theirs?
Suggested Conversation: Talk about your arrival, is there the option to go straight out for a walk with one of you whilst the other unpacks? Is there the possibility the relative can have 1-1 time on departure whilst you pack?
Conversations with relatives, especially Grandparents, around the topic of your children can be heavily loaded with your own dynamics with your parents. Here are some suggestions to avoid conflicts and encourage co-operation.
Firstly, I would make sure you are conscious of what you are feeling and needing and imagine what needs and feelings might be present for your guests/hosts. Come from a place of gratitude for your time together and to approach conversations with the intention of connecting around all your needs.
The starting point is to identify your feelings and needs. You could then ask for their feelings and needs and go on to look at how you can work together to find a solution. Remember that requests promote more co-operation than demands.
For example, I have strong views about the news being on TV, its content seems too violent for a young child. I would tune in to my feelings and needs, I have a need for care, I feel worried. I may share my these feelings. From there I could make a request. "I am feeling a bit worried, the news on TV has content in that I want to introduce to my son at a later stage in his development. What are your needs around the news?" Pause, listen, acknowledge. One request you could make is "Would you be willing to watch the news in the evening or let me know when it may come on the TV so we can pop out of the room?” This comes across totally differently than “I don't want the news on when were here”. We are trying to avoid confrontation and demands, we are making requests and working together to meet all our needs.
I would finish with a quote from some young friends who helped me with my research. One, age-3, said, "She (Gran) makes really nice porridge, I get to sleep in a bed on the floor that comes from under her bed and I love stroking her cat" and another, age-4, said "I love seeing Grandma and Grandpa because of their hat!" it's a gnome hat apparently!?! Let the wonderment commence!
Please let me know how you get on with any of the suggestions and have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
If you would like to have this level of awareness and support for your child on a day-to-day basis, thus bringing more connection and cooperation, please have a look at the courses and consultations pages.
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