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The holiday season can be one of long to-do lists and jam-packed calendars. During the holiday season, I often receive messages from parents sharing their feelings of overwhelm about commitments that they have taken on in December.

Not surprisingly, our children feel these pressures as well. And when there is a tantrum at the Christmas parade, or an unexpected reaction to a gift or a special outing, parents may not understand why their child just isn’t happy. After all, isn’t the holiday season and all its trimmings designed to make children HAPPY?!?

The truth is that in our busy, chaotic world, kids are starved for our presence. This feeling is amplified during the holiday season. Our children and their sensitive nervous systems become highly stimulated by the crowds, bright lights, tables full of rich food, and chatter from family and friends. Top these off with late nights and high expectations, and our children are often teetering on the edge of Meltdown City. But how do we bring them back down from this unsettled place? How can we get grounded during the holiday hubbub?

1. Sloooooooooooow it Down

Christmastime can feel like a race. I don’t know how it is where you live, but in the suburbs of Vancouver, holiday events and light shows can book up very quickly. In a society with constant FOMO (fear of missing out), this can result in a family being booked up for nearly every holiday weekend. In an attempt to give our child the ‘Best Holiday Ever’, we can end up creating a perfect storm of too-much-of-everything. Our children need an opportunity to feel grounded in order to rest. Ensuring that you have evenings of togetherness with low-stakes activities, such as board games, cookie decorating, movie watching, etc, can help to take off that pressure while fostering connection at the same time.

2. Prioritise Being in the Present

Our children are all too aware of when our attention is divided. When we stop mid-conversation when our phone beeps or because we “just have to take care of this work thing”, it not only interrupts the moment, but it also interrupts the relationship. Set aside time every evening to be with your child without the distractions of electronics or your to-do list. Listen to your child’s stories, ask open-ended questions, and let those notifications go. Make it a habit to check in with your child and have them know that you are 100 percent focussed on them. The world will not end if that text or email is answered 15 minutes later. I promise.

3. Create a Countdown / Advent of Togetherness

A fun family tradition can be an advent calendar, and one way to foster relationships over the holidays is by creating an ‘advent calendar of togetherness’. You can get your child involved in the planning, and activities do not have to be big, expensive productions. Plan for an evening walk, cookie baking, having hot chocolate, or driving around to see Christmas lights. These simple but meaningful activities allow the family to enjoy one another without the stress of being ‘on’ for others.

4. Consider Editing What’s Under the Tree

The packages under the tree can also be a source of pressure and big expectations. I have heard so many stories of parents feeling as though their child is ungrateful or rude on Christmas morning. One mother described to me that her child seemingly became “numb” after opening six or seven gifts on Christmas morning. She explained that her daughter was almost unable to process what she was opening after the first few presents. I’ve recently heard of the 5 Gift Rule, where parents buy their children something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read, and then something do to.

By setting some guidelines to work within, you and your child can set some reasonable expectations (and avoid accidentally going overboard on the Christmas spending), to ensure that gifts are both meaningful and not too over-the-top.

5. Read the Room

You are the expert on your child, and you will be able to tell when things are becoming too much. If your child isn’t excited about going out, has weary eyes, or is emotionally overflowing – don’t be afraid to say no. Cut the evening short, cancel the light tour, switch it up, order in pizza and watch a movie under a blanket fort. Take it down a notch and let your child exhale. It is very easy to be swept up into the magic of Christmas, but when it starts to become more of an obligation or a source of upset, it’s time for you to step in and make choices that serve you and your family first.

I love Christmas and all the joy it brings – especially the opportunities for quality time with the family. I also know all too well how challenging it can be to set limits in a time of more, more, more. Once you become more conscious of your time and spending, the easier these edits will be. Let your child be your guide and follow their lead. Slow it down. Focus on less production, and more connection, and your holiday season can be full of both merriment and calm – the best of both worlds.

Dr Vanessa Lapointe

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe is a mum, registered psychologist, parenting educator, best-selling author, international speaker, and a regularly invited media guest. Founder and director of The Wishing Star Lapointe Developmental Clinic, she has been supporting families and children for almost 20 years, and has previous experience in community mental health and the school system. Dr. Vanessa is known for bringing a sense of nurturing, understanding, and humanity to all of her work. Her passion is in walking alongside parents, teachers, care providers, and other big people to really see the world through the child’s eyes. She believes that if we can do this, we are beautifully positioned to grow our children in the best possible way.