Ho! Ho! Ho! The holidays are here! That means decorating, shopping, cards, cooking, cleaning, and gatherings galore. And for those of us with little ones, extra sprinkles of sleeplessness, tantrums, sugar-rushes, melt-downs, and mayhem. Don’t get us wrong, kids certainly make the season more magical….but there’s no denying it also makes the holidays more emotional, dramatic, and overstimulating for everyone involved.
Here are 8 easy-ish parent hacks for less stressful holidays.(Note: These are more geared towards toddlers, but there are nuggets in here that apply to babies, too. And for the folks who haven’t yet experienced a holiday with a toddler, consider these tips advanced training for the future.)
#1 Keep an eye on the eats.This might seem obvious, but be sure your wee ones are eating and snacking at regular-ish times. The holidays often include unusual mealtimes, such as a mid-morning brunch, and while it might be tempting to skip your child’s regularly scheduled meals – that’s a recipe for disaster. A hangry child will not be the well-behaved holiday child you’re hoping to share with family and friends.
First and foremost, keep plenty of healthy snacks on hand. Also, if you know unusual foods will be served, consider feeding your child ahead of time, or bring along a meal you know is acceptable to your toddler’s tastebuds. Finally, be mindful of how many sugary treats your little one eats.
PRO TIP: Use your holiday cookie cutters with things like whole grain bread PB&Js, cheese, omelets, and other healthy foods. It’s festive and fun, so your kiddo won’t feel quite as deprived when you shun the sweet treats.
#2 Don’t rock the routine-boat (too much).Little ones thrive on routines. Predictability makes them feel safe and comfortable. The holidays tend to become a tsunami of schedule disruption, but you can weather the storm if you can get ahead of it. If you are changing your routine, be sure to tell your kiddo ahead of time what’s about to happen, where you’re going, who will be there, what you’ll be doing, any house rules they should be aware of, etc.
PRO TIP: Capture your regular routine in photos: from when you wake up in the morning until bedtime. (Extra pro tip: Print them out and make a little book out of them.) This allows you to show your kiddo what’s coming next in the day. For example, one photo could be breakfast and the following one could be a toothbrush. Now your kiddo can easily visualize your typical routine. When you know something different is going to be thrown into the mix, you can show them where it fits into the day. For example, saying, “After your nap but before dinner we’re going to Grandma’s house. We’ll be back home for books and tubby time.”
Also, try to stick to regular nap and bed times as much as possible. Tired kids are cranky kids which leads to cranky, tired parents. Even if your sister lets her toddler stay up until he literally passes out or if your mom is giving you a hard time for not being more flexible, stick to your guns. You’re the one who’s going to have to deal with the little monster that emerges when your little angel gets exhausted.
PRO TIP: Communicate with people ahead of time. If you know you need to leave at a certain time, make that clear ahead of time so no one’s surprised when you start to pack up.
#3 Set your hopes high and your expectations low.Of course the dream is to have a drama-free, fun, fabulous time and an effortless transition back to your normal routine when the time comes – and you should certainly go into the holidays thinking positive thoughts and hoping for the best. But, keep your expectations realistic and think about what behaviors are developmentally appropriate for your kiddo (e.g. toddlers are not wired to sit still for a long time).
Remember: many holiday traditions aren’t especially kid-friendly – parties with lots of strangers and stimulation, lengthy services, foods that may not appeal to picky eaters. If your kid’s getting fussy or overwhelmed or overstimulated, they’re not misbehaving. They’re being a kid.
#4 Rehearse for the big show.If your child is going to be in a new type of situation, try a little role play ahead of time to give them some practice. Whether it’s a silly tradition or a religious one, act it out so it’s not a surprise to your child. It’s another way to help your child feel more comfortable in the moment and less anxious – making better memories for everyone.
#5 Be ridiculously prepared.Pack with the apocalypse in mind. Food, drinks, extra clothes, toys, medicine, favorite blankie – All. The. Things. Even if the gathering is only supposed to last a few hours. When you arrive, scan the area for any breakable items or hazards to keep your kiddo away from.
#6 Have a code word.This sounds like you’re setting up for a mission (and you sort of are) but it’s a really clever idea. Agree on a simple code word that kids can use with you at gatherings if they need to find a bathroom, need a break, etc. Alternatively, you can come up with a hand signal - like coming up to you and putting two fingers on your arm or leg. This is really helpful for kids who find it embarrassing expressing their needs in front of other adults and for those that simply get overwhelmed easily.
#7 Respect your little boo’s boundaries.Do you remember what it was like to have to kiss Great Aunt Agnes? Talk with your kids about how greetings might work. Do they feel comfortable hugging their relatives or would they prefer a fist bump, high-five or some other alternative? Children have a right to say no when an adult wants to hug or kiss them and they feel uncomfortable; from a young age, kids can learn about consent and setting polite boundaries.
Likewise, children shouldn’t be forced to participate in activities they don’t like or eat foods they don’t want to (i.e. Grandma’s fruit cake). Be your child’s best advocate, and stand up for their needs.
#8 Call for reinforcement.Sometimes, we just need a break. You’re entitled to “me time,” especially during the holidays. Don’t feel guilty asking for help with your little one for a few hours. It’s not only better for you to practice self-care, it’s better for your child, too. Kids sense stress and they get stressed, too. And remember: Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s health care.
PRO TIP: Just say no. You’re not obligated to attend every event or do all the typical holiday things. Cut yourself some slack if you’re just not feeling up to the annual parade or baking your own cookies this year. You can still have a perfectly lovely holiday if you skip a few things.
Now it’s your turn! If you’ve been through the holiday ringer before, please share a story or tip in the comments below. And if this is your first rodeo, feel free to share what you’re most worried about.