Christmas. Like the song says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” While we cherish meaningful time with those dearest to us, these highly charged celebrations often stress parents, over-stimulate children, and incline both to volatile behaviour.

Here are some practical ideas that can help protect the joy of the season and may minimize the likelihood of holiday meltdowns and conflicts. These seven ideas are anchored in the principle that we all behave better when we feel better! So try to relax your expectations, scan through, and choose one or two options (don’t worry about all of them!) you want to try with your family this year.

1) Relax Expectations

Don’t be shocked; whether your children are 2, 12, or 22 they will not behave perfectly this holiday season. Neither will you nor I! You probably have some relatives who won’t behave perfectly either. 😉 The reason for the season is the One who invaded our mess to bring the Good News of His grace. What better example of the Spirit of Christmas than to give mercy and encouragement to a struggling family member. So when it falls apart this Christmas, take a deep breath, smile and repeat to yourself, “Yup, this is how it goes sometimes. I’m so glad Jesus came to love us at our worst.”

2) Simplify

Christmas is about God’s greatest gift to humans – His son Jesus Christ. This gets lost all too easily in our cultural expression of the holiday. Of everything you feel like you have to do this Christmas, what can you eliminate this year to simplify? What would it take to build a few extra minutes into each day for rest, prayer, or meditation? What’s one simple thing you could do to help your kids enter into calming activities with you? Share your ideas in the comments section to inspire and connect with others!

3) Give Proactive Attention

In the stress of the season our children need more of our attention. They often get less… until they misbehave. (Which teaches them a really effective way to get attention.) During a holiday gathering, look for opportunities to affirm any positive behaviour: sharing, respect, or helpfulness. Make a priority of setting aside a few minutes, or more, for relaxed, quality connection and affection each day. This is especially important to do before any of your gatherings. This can fill the “love bucket” of both parent and child.

4) Protect Rest and Routine

Tired people typically don’t handle stress and high-energy activities well. Exhausted children don’t transition well. Be sure kids are getting adequate sleep. Some studies suggest the majority of misbehaviour is driven by sleep deprivation. The better everyone can stay at least close to normal routines, the less stressed they will be. This may even mean letting go of meeting the expectations of well-meaning relatives. Try to keep meals and snacks close to regular schedule. When changes in routine are unavoidable, talk to the children and let them know what’s going to happen. And do your best to be a rested parent yourself.

5) Be a Blessing

“It is better to give than to receive.” Certainly both giving and receiving are aspects of Christmas. Consider what could be done to orient your children more toward giving than receiving. Involve children in gift preparation and package wrapping. Utilize or develop their talents to help with homemade pictures or crafts (like the candles our kids love to make), simple meal prep, or assist in the care of younger relatives. Think outside the box. Could your child decorate packages or make special placemats, arrange a centrepiece using a few ornaments from the tree, deliver a muffin and juice breakfast-in-bed to a visiting relative, or greet relatives and put coats on a bed? Then talk with your children about how good it feels to be a blessing to others.

6) Mix the Generations

A basement full of charged up, unsupervised children is a recipe for conflict. Try taking turns with several adults at a time to facilitate children’s activities and play. The inter-generational fun is valuable for far more than just keeping the peace. Some kids do best if their activities involve some intense muscle effort (but without wild roughhousing), such as a brisk walk or sledding. You could make a “Rushing River” (don’t step on the floor) obstacle course out of steps, stools, chairs, pillows/washcloths/paper plates as stepping stones, a board as a bridge, etc. On a quieter note you could do a tactile craft like play-doh or pipe cleaner art, prepare a simple skit about the Christmas story to perform for the rest of the adults, or each child could draw a picture of a different part of the Christmas story to make a timeline.

7) Manage Kids’ Stimulation

If kids’ activities get chaotic or noisy, a quiet storybook, snuggle time, or a helpful task alone with an adult can give a particularly sensitive or intense child a needed break in the action. A child can bring a backpack of “alone time” toys for special quiet play options. Older children can be taught to monitor when they need a break – “Let me know if it gets noisy and your body feels stressed. We can find something quieter for you to do to help your body feel better. I want you to have a great time here!” Try to provide these breaks often enough to avert a meltdown rather than react to one as it happens.

We wish you a Christmas in which you know the presence of Jesus in a deeper way!

Written by Jim and Lynne Jackson

Jim and Lynne Jackson

Jim and Lynne Jackson, co-founders of Connected Families, our on a mission to fill a growing need for fresh, biblically sound and practical parenting resources. With over 50 combined years of professionally helping families, and a love for working in the church, Jim and Lynne have been dedicated to bringing reliable, God-centered, parenting resources to all families since 2002.