Keep Calm & Carry On

Words by: Elaine Halligan

Many of us have a John Lewis advert-style vision of an ideal Christmas. It probably involves snow, decorations, carols (or cheesy music), festive food and happy families sitting around full of good cheer and banter.

As we know, the reality often falls short of this, with emotions running high and old family tensions being dragged out, dusted off and given a good airing. Having a happy time over the festive period involves managing not just our children’s stress levels but also our own. One of our clients reported that she actually threatened to cancel Christmas one year, due to her children behaving badly and finding herself running out of threats and punishments that seemed to have any impact. Another client wanted to instigate divorce proceedings against her in-laws, if that had been a possibility.

The key to staying calm is managing expectations. As parents, we are often stretched to breaking point at this ‘festive time’ of year, with the angst of making nativity play costumes, competing to deliver a House & Garden replica home, with gorgeous decorations and a Nigella-esque domestic goddess-type feast every night.

Women, generally the organisers-in-chief and main list-makers for Christmas activities, often have unreasonable expectations of themselves and how Christmas should be. We know that when we get stressed the children pick up on our moods and we snap at them more. We’re impatient with their demands, their emotional upsets and their conflicts. We become less available to them and our connection is broken.

The solution lies in reframing our expectations and making sure they are realistic. Your mantra should be ‘good enough’ – try hard not to succumb to the perils of perfectionism.

Our expectations of our children can also be unrealistic. If you expect them to always be polite, to be full of gratitude for gifts, to get on well with their siblings and to be tactful around difficult relatives, then you are setting yourself up for failure. Recognise your children will be tired at the end of the long autumn term. There may be Christmas pantomimes or Christmas specials on TV to watch, the Christmas lights to see and many late nights, meaning their sleep will be compromised and their energy levels depleted.


Anticipate what could go wrong and take preventive action. Discuss with your partner how you will manage late nights, different foods, lots of presents, TV, going out and having guests. The impact of sugar alone can literally send some children spinning. Plan daily physical activity to enable the children to run out of steam.

This is essential for the holidays so discuss them with your partner in advance, rather than make them up as you go along. For example, when do the kids need to get up and dressed in the morning, how much TV or computer time is allowed each day, and what time is bedtime? There should be rules even if these are different from those you have at home/in term time. You may need to discuss house rules with the parents of other families under the same roof.

This is in order to minimise stress so you can focus on enjoying being with your children. We know it’s difficult, but make sure you plan for some time for yourself (even if it’s just a quick soak in the bath) so that you can replenish the resource that you are for your family.

Spend time with each child every day – it doesn’t have to be long, perhaps 10 minutes, but it’s important they know they can have your positive attention so they don’t need to play up and get negative attention.

Notice and acknowledge your children for what they get right, rather than focussing first on what they get wrong. Give detailed praise about the behaviours you value, such as: “Thank you for helping your sister find her bunny, that’s kind,” or: “I love it when you play together with the trains – sharing the carriages between you was a great idea,” or: “I appreciated it when you helped me unload the shopping this morning.” To feel valued, we need to hear five positive comments for each negative comment. It’s called the Magic Ratio.

Rather than shouting, blaming, criticising and threatening, think about why they are acting this way. A source of anxiety for some kids is the talk about being ‘naughty or nice’ and the conditionality of Father Christmas visiting. Was there an emotion driving their behaviour, such as jealousy or frustration, or were they looking for attention? Were they tired, over-stimulated or over-sugared? Help your child calm down in a quiet place, so she can come back and make amends.

When your child gets it wrong, rather than scold or shout, ask them to do a ‘Take Two’ and try it again the right way, such as: “That didn’t sound very polite or grateful. Can you say that again?” When we avoid blame, judgment and criticism, our children are much more willing and better able to learn how to problem-solve. Sending them to their room isn’t going to help them learn how to put their mistakes right. Have a problem-solving mindset, and avoid getting caught out by threatening a consequence that you don’t carry out. Do you really want to cancel Christmas?

Elaine Halligan is London Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation that enables parents to get the best out of their children.