It’s that time of year: sugar cookies, parties, cold weather, hot chocolate, ice skating, sugar, bright lights, music, more sugar, stressed out parents, long lines, sitting on stranger’s laps, stories of creepy elves on shelves moving around the house, what? more sugar? And it’s around this time of year every parent begins to wonder if buying the kids presents is actually the best idea, after their kids begin acting like all the bad children from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory.
Yes. I mean it. They begin to act bratty. It’s true. This kid who seemed to be a perfect angle back in September seems to have grown horns and wants to destroy everything in her path! And we’re going to reward that behavior with PRESENTS? WTF? It builds and builds, parents losing their tempers, dads threatening to “take away Christmas” (yes, my own husband actually made that threat one year). First of all, don’t make a threat you can’t actually deliver on!! There’s that. And pause for a second before you get started believing you are raising a child who will become one of those people at Walmart on Black Friday, beating up other shoppers to get to the latest greatest toy. I mean, they certainly might, but chances are by the time those kids return to school in January, they will be the great kids they were before the holidays started creeping into their world, dysregulating their brains in every possible way:
- First of all, we have Santa. This bloke who they don’t know. He’s a complete stranger. We say things like “write him a letter, go sit on his lap, tell him what you want” after they’ve already heard he is constantly watching them, judging their behavior, and deciding if they deserve presents or not. Talk about sending our kids mixed messages.
And by the way, he always looks different. Should we trust all old men with beards? Is he a shape shifter? Sometimes he’s dark skinned, sometime’s he’s light skinned. Sometimes he smells like tacos. Sometimes he smells like cigarettes. Sometimes he smells like gingerbread. And by the way, we are allowing him to sneak into our house during the night. But don’t be scared. Really. And yes, he’ll probably land on the roof. But don’t be hypervigilant. Don’t be looking over your shoulder all the time. Don’t be listening to every little creak and groan in our house. It’ll be fine. Really.
- Then there are the elves. These things that seems a bit like leprechauns, the known pranksters of the magical world. They are small, but exactly how small? Might I step on them? Do they speak? Do the pets notice them? Why doesn’t my cat eat them? Will they hurt me?
- And then, we expect the kids to look picture perfect, Christmas card perfect.
Eat some sugar, go to a party, eat more sugar, why are you melting down? Don’t melt down in front of everyone. It will make me look like a parent who allows my kid to get away with murder! I don’t want people to think I spoil her.
The holidays are hard. I am speaking from the Christmas perspective, because that’s what I’m in the thick of at the moment, but it’s the same with birthdays and other holidays – Christmas is just amplified because it goes on and on, practically for a month. I feel it, the pressure. I mean, I’m a therapist who WORKS WITH KIDS! The last thing I want people to see is my kid behaving like the demon spawn of Satan. But since I began studying the nervous system, at least I can see the reasons behind the behavior more clearly:
- Our schedule is gone, completely. Having a schedule gives us a means of controlling the chaos. When we don’t have one, people (children, especially) can get really nutty because there is no predictability. (Other than the predictability of someone losing their mind at least once during the day.)
- Our diet is completely wacked out. If we remember to eat a real meal, it is a Christmas miracle! Most of our meals become reasons to eat those leftover cookies before they get stale.
- Our sensory systems are overwhelmed. Wherever we drive, there is too much traffic. Any store we enter is bursting with people. There are lights and sounds and smells and exhaustion. It’s too hot inside, it’s too cold outside. Whew. We can’t sleep because we are excited or overstimulated or too jacked on sugar.
But this doesn’t have to mean a season of complete freak outs. Give everyone a break, yourself included. It’s a busy time and we work really hard to make it exactly what is supposed to be… a Hallmark movie on the Lifetime channel. And it never is. Start noticing how ridiculous your own expectations are. One of mine is that we all are together, so we should be active and sporty and outside and laughing. Instead, my daughter and husband are playing a video game and I am typing this. Who cares? We are all together and we’re going to make some more Christmas cookies soon. It’s cozy. We have all year to be active. We will eat better again soon. We will have a schedule. This is a month to relax the rules and remember to love each other just as we are. Our kids aren’t perfect, there is no such thing as a perfect kid. That’s why the explosives lives of child stars enthrall us so much. For a little while, we really thought the Huxtables were perfect. We believed that the Eight is Enough cast were all happy and healthy in real life. Look how wrong we were. They are human, too. We all screw it up, all the time. The important thing is to remember why we do all of this. For me, it’s because Christmas is a time when magic happens; this crazy dude from up north brings us presents! We don’t have to be perfect to get them! We just have to be ourselves and that is enough! And find moments of regulation. Those are times when your brain feels calm. And I don’t mean overindulge with alcohol! I mean, find moment of mindfulness. Lay on the floor with your kids and color. But really do it with them. You might be surprised by what happens to your brain. Both hemispheres begin to communicate. The overwhelm starts to fade into the periphery. Take a bath or a shower to give your nervous system the tactile sensory information it needs to feel safe. Even better, use some super awesome smelling soap or shampoo along with it. Or take a walk all by yourself. That’s what I did today. It was cold and windy, but it didn’t bother me because I could get out of my thoughts long enough to feel the biting air on my cheeks. I watched the clouds race across the sky. I felt my legs moving. Suddenly the amount of stuff I needed to get to in the next three days just kind of left me. Who cares. My family isn’t perfect, I’m not perfect, and I think that’s probably that’s the key: the joy is in the imperfection.
Go be imperfect and eat a cookie.