There’s no foolproof way to ensure your child greets Christmas Day with delight and gratitude (rather than ire at receiving the Jake’s Treasure Hunt Lego set instead of the Jake’s Pirate Ship Bucky version). But tips from The Happiest Toddler on the Block can be applied with a little holiday twist to ease the stress that attends disrupted routines and unfulfilled expectations — and make the holidays happier for everyone.
Discuss family traditions ahead of time. Celebrating often means big changes, such as skipping naps and eating at odd hours. You can provide some consistency by sticking to your child’s routine when possible (for example, recreating bedtime rituals even in a strange place), but that only goes so far. Luckily, Christmas comes with a readymade substitution for routine: tradition! Discussing family traditions well beforehand gives children a sense of security in the midst of the unfamiliar. Watch their eyes grow big as you explain how on Christmas Eve you’ll set out cookies for Santa (and the decorated Cheerios known as “elf donuts” for his helpers), delve into stockings after everyone wakes up, take turns opening presents, and gather around a fancy table for an early dinner. Whatever seasonal traditions your family observes, explaining them beforehand can make your child feel like a winner who knows what’s coming next.
Set boundaries to moderate your child’s expectations. It’s not unreasonable for a child — who may have written out a long list of desired gifts for Santa, mailed it to the North Pole with great fanfare, and followed it up with a snuggly personal plea at the mall — to assume that St. Nick will deliver each and every item regardless of expense and availability. If, however, you make it clear on day one (of the advent calendar) that Santa brings just one present, you’ll be met with less disappointment on Christmas Day. When it comes to limits on junk food intake, consider making clearly communicated exceptions (“On Christmas Eve, you can have one extra treat and on Christmas two, because those days are special.”). Establishing holiday-specific regulations like these tells kids that you’ll bend the rules a little but won’t allow a behavioral free-for-all.
Try “side-door” emotion coaching. Tell your child stories about how you once grappled with holiday disappointment too (“One year I didn’t get the Teddy Ruxpin doll I wanted and got so upset that I was busy crying when my brother unwrapped the present I worked hard to make him. Then I was doubly sad because I really wanted to see the look on his face when he opened it, and I missed it.”). Repeatedly tell them how much fun giving gifts can be (“Won’t Grandma be excited to open the coffee cup with your picture on it? Do you think she’ll smile really big or maybe look a little surprised at first? I love watching people open the presents I’ve chosen for them — even more than opening the ones for me!”).
Fill your child’s physical and emotional gas tank. Help your child get good sleep, encourage them to play outside before “best behavior” times, and limit chocolate (a caffeinated child is a rambunctious child!). Emotionally, “feed the meter” by giving your child lots of attention leading up to the festivities and little bits of “special time” each day. Finally, frame things as positively as possible (“Yes! You can use the scissors to cut the wrapping paper next year when you turn four. Would you like to put on the tape for me right now?”).
Talk, talk, talk. Once Christmas arrives, remind your child about the traditional schedule (“As soon as everyone wakes up, we’ll get to look in our stockings!”) as well as expected behavior (“We’re about to start a fancy dinner; if you don’t like something, just push it over to the time-out section of your plate, but please don’t say anything or move it off your dish.”). Model the behavior you want to see, and narrate your own emotions, both positive (“I’m excited that Uncle Henry is unwrapping the present we picked out next!”) and negative (“I feel impatient that we have to stop opening presents while Grandpa answers his phone.”).
Follow the “Fast Food Rule.” First, let your child express herself and only then respond, repeating her emotions as if you’re at a fast food drive-thru window repeating a customer’s order (“You say you feel sad and angry because you wanted the big pink dollhouse and Santa got you a smaller wooden dollhouse. I understand just how you feel because of that time I didn’t get the Teddy Ruxpin doll I wanted. Remember that story? How about we take a few deep breaths together and then think of things that are making us feel happy right now so that we don’t miss anything fun?”).
Give credit where credit is due. Positively reinforce desirable behavior (“Wow! I can see how hard it was for you to wait until your brother opened his present, but you were very patient! I’m impressed.”).
Christmas can be a time of unchecked materialism and emotional meltdowns, or it can be infused with the spirit of giving and joy. No matter how well you prepare, with a child it will probably be a little of both. Approach your kids and the holidays with a charitable mindset, and you’ll be more likely to see your calmness, flexibility, and gratitude reflected back — for a truly merry Christmas!
Dr. Harvey Karp has been a specialist in children’s health and development for over 30 years. Over a million parents have used Dr. Karp’s techniques for making their kids – and families – happy. His landmark publications, The Happiest Baby on the Block, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, and Dr. Karp Live: A Conversation about Babies, Toddlers and Sleep, have been translated into over 20 languages and their popularity has made Dr. Karp the most-read pediatrician in America. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.