Last year, on the night of December 25, I put my kids to bed and collapsed on the couch.
All I could think was, WHEW. It’s over. Thank goodness.
I remember feeling quite the opposite when I was a child. The end of the much-anticipated holiday was a major letdown; I couldn’t believe I had to wait 365 days to experience it all again.
What happened to me, I wondered, that the end of the Christmas season now sparks relief rather than disappointment?
Oh, that’s right, I became a parent.
It’s true that having little kids makes the holidays more complicated—and sometimes more frustrating and stressful too. But small children are also amazing reminders of the magic, joy, and wonder of Christmas.
So this year I’m taking a different approach to make sure my family actually gets to enjoy all that magic and joy and wonder. I’m starting with these 16 serious sanity-savers.
16 Sanity-Saving Tips for Christmas With Little Kids
1. Be selective in your magic making.
Parents are under a lot of pressure these days to make the holidays as magical as possible for their children.
What, you mean you aren’t sending personalized Christmas cards, baking cookies from scratch, making a gingerbread house, visiting Santa, moving your Elf, watching Christmas movies, taking family photos in matching Christmas pajamas, going on a sleigh ride, decorating a tree, making homemade gifts, attending an ugly Christmas sweater party, singing carols, AND hosting Christmas dinner? What’s wrong with you???
Not surprisingly, all that magic and joy can quickly turn exhausting and burdensome—for kids and parents alike. So don’t try to do it all; instead, pick two or three activities or traditions that are most important to you and make the most of them.
2. Limit your gift giving to your kids.
The holidays make it tempting to go overboard in the gift department. With all the excitement and anticipation—and, let’s be honest, the marketing—it’s easy to find ourselves buying present after present after present for our kids.
But deep down, we know our children don’t need all those new toys (and our wallets probably don’t either). In fact, a sea of presents on Christmas morning is actually overwhelming and stressful for some kids! So limit them—perhaps through a structured approach such as the Four Gift Rule (you know, one gift you want, one gift you need, one gift to wear, and one gift to read).
3. Take toys out of their packaging before wrapping them.
It’s normal for little kids to unwrap a new toy and want to play with it THAT SECOND. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it allows everyone to slow down and relax instead of rushing to open all the presents at once. But you don’t want to spend Christmas morning fighting with all that frustrating plastic packaging!
Last year we removed the toys from their packaging—and put in batteries if needed—so the presents were ready to be enjoyed right away. It worked for us!
4. Consider the cheapest, easiest toddler gift out there.
This toddler gift idea was a HIT in our household last year!
5. Prep simple activities for when you need a little space.
Sometimes you just need to bake without a toddler wrapped around your lower leg, or wrap a gift without a preschooler lunging for the grown-up scissors. To keep from losing your cool, plan a few simple activities that your child can do independently and that will keep his/her attention for twenty minutes or so. Here are some ideas to get you started.
6. Role play difficult situations.
It’s easy to forget how stressful the holidays can be for small children. There are a lot of new situations to navigate and high expectations for their behavior.
We’ve found that a little bit of practice goes a long way. Here are some of the situations we’ve rehearsed ahead of time:
- What to say (and not to say) if you open a gift you don’t like.
- How to handle the difficult moment when the last present has been opened.
- How to react to family members who request (or demand) hugs and kisses. (This is the approach we use; we never make our children show physical affection if they don’t want to.)
My kids like it when I take a turn playing the child’s role. I often show them different options and they choose which one they want to use in that particular situation.
7. Help your kids make gifts in big batches.
I really like the idea of my children making homemade gifts for their family members. The trouble is that we have a big family! So then they end up needing to make, say, 20 bookmarks or ornaments or whatever.
My preschooler has an impressive attention span, but even he can’t commit to that big of a project! By DIY gift #13, we’ve all lost steam.
So this year we’re going with a gift—perhaps something edible!—that our kids can help make in one big batch, which is then divided among our family members. More fun and less stressful for everyone!
8. Fill your own cup.
If you want to feel rejuvenated instead of depleted throughout this holiday season, you’ve got to take care of yourself. As hard as it is to find a free moment, intentionally carve out time for journaling, reading, meditating/praying, sipping tea, going for walks, or doing yoga—whatever leaves you feeling restored in the midst of a busy schedule.
Doing so will make you feel more relaxed and peaceful—which will in turn rub off on the entire family.
9. Get help.
Even if you’ve pared down your holiday magic-making, you still might feel overwhelmed by your Christmas to-do list. Now would be a good time to turn to that voice in your head that says you have to be Supermom and politely say, “SHUT UP.”
Then ask your partner to take over some of the holiday shopping and other kin-keeping work. Host a potluck meal instead of cooking it all yourself. Hire a babysitter so you can clean your house in peace. Don’t feel like you have to go it alone.
10. Feed your kids (and yourself) normally leading up to big meals.
In our weight-obsessed culture, everyone’s always talking about “saving room” for big holiday meals. But all this really does is set ourselves up for a Christmas cookie binge—and leave our kids “hangry” and more likely to misbehave.
So don’t starve yourself or your kids just because a big meal is coming later. Eat normally, eat mindfully, eat joyfully.
11. Get everyone outdoors.
When you feel that holiday stress looming, one of the simplest ways to dissipate it is by going outside. It’s amazing what even just a few minutes of crisp, fresh air can do for us.
12. Be on the lookout for overstimulation.
Dazzling Christmas lights. Nonstop Christmas tunes on the radio. A house full of out-of-town guests. For little kids, these things can be equal parts exciting and overwhelming. In a matter of seconds a child can go from excited to overstimulated.
So build in moments of peace and quiet: reading books with just one parent, coloring Christmas pictures, and plenty of downtime between activities.
13. Lower your expectations.
Christmas is magical, yes, but it is not the end-all, be-all of family memory-making. Inevitably, somebody is going to get a bellyache on Christmas Eve, or have a meltdown due to the aforementioned overstimulation, or freak out because Santa is actually really scary, or have a lackluster response to the present you were so excited to give.
And that’s ok. Christmas is special, of course, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
14. Remember your routine.
The holidays require flexibility, yes. There are going to be situations where later bedtimes and skipped naps are necessary, and that’s a good thing!
But little kids really do thrive on structure—even (or perhaps especially!) during the holidays.
So whenever possible, keep bedtimes, nap times, meal times, and snack times predictable. This will also help immensely when the holiday season is over and everyone tries to get back to “normal.”
15. Choose just a handful of special moments to photograph.
Now that we all carry cameras around in our pockets, it’s all too easy to focus on documenting a moment rather than experiencing it.
I totally get it; there’s a lot of joy that comes from snapping an adorable shot, sharing it with friends on social media, and looking back on it months or years later. But sometimes it’s just too much—and the telltale sign is when your kids start whining the moment you whip out your camera phone.
So make a commitment not to photograph every precious moment this holiday season. Choose a few that you really want to capture—maybe your son decorating the tree, your daughter’s expression when she comes downstairs Christmas morning, or the whole family gathered around the dinner table for the big meal.
Document those moments, and then be fully present for the rest.
16. Focus on connection.
When in doubt about whether you should go to that Christmas party or stay home with the family, head out shopping again or relax by the fireplace, schedule another activity or veg on the couch with a Christmas movie—you’ll never go wrong if you choose connection.
Connection looks different for different people and on different days, but it always hits the spot. And it will show your little children that the real joy of Christmas is in the love that we show one another, during the holidays and all year-round.