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Opinion Top five parenting tips to surviving Christmas

Striving for a picture perfect Christmas will bring certain disappointment, as a parent aiming for survival is much more realistic, writes Shane Dunphy.

FOR MUMS AND Dads the world over, the Christmas season is perhaps the biggest event in the year. This is, after all, the time when many of our children’s longest-lasting and hopefully most treasured memories are made.

We try to pull out all the stops and make our very best effort to ensure everyone has the best possible time.

Yet while yuletide is a period of merrymaking and jollity, there are many flashpoints amid the festivities, moments when good cheer can transform into anger with alarming rapidity.

Here then are my top five parenting tips to help you survive Christmas with your mental health intact.

Five: Don’t shoot for perfection – it’s unachievable!

The Christmas TV schedules are already brimming with footage of immaculately decorated homes, all dripping with lights complete with towering trees bedecked with vintage baubles and topped with gloriously detailed angels. The gardens of these properties are usually wonderlands of fake snow and artfully manicured festive-themed topiary.

So why, despite your best efforts, doesn’t your house look like that? You spent ages picking the perfect tree, but when you got it home it just can’t seem to sit right on the stand, no matter how you angle it (there also seems to be a bald bit a third of the way up that no amount of tinsel will disguise).

You said you needed to buy more lights this year, but you forgot, and now one set won’t stop flashing so frenetically you’re worried they will bring on a seizure in Auntie Mary.

The dogs keep peeing on the statue of Santa you put on the front lawn, so one of his legs has gone discoloured. Your son has posted about it on Instagram. And guess what?

No one cares about any of this except you. Give yourself a break.

Four: Don’t shop as if the world is ending – it’s just for one day

You’ve defrosted the freezer and cleared out all the cupboards. You’ve bought every available flavour of Pringle and ordered that fancy coffee online that your father-in-law likes.

You’ve bought ten different types of mustard, not to mention red wine, white wine, rosé and prosecco for dinner, as well as a dessert wine you know no one will drink, but himself insists you have it.

You have fifteen loaves of white bread and ten loaves of brown for the sandwiches, and you’ve got a mini-fridge full of nothing but Hellman’s’ Mayonnaise – also for the sandwiches.

You’ve hidden the boxes of Celebrations and Heroes, because your youngest found them last year and when you opened them on Christmas evening, one was full of nothing but empty wrappers, which obviously lead to a massive row.

There is enough beer in the shed to keep a large off-license in business for approximately three weeks without needing to restock.

You live in fear that you have forgotten something critically important. Try to remember that all the shops reopen on St Stephen’s Day and a few even open on Christmas Day itself. You have needlessly shopped yourself into a frenzy.

Three: Lay down some ground-rules for Nana and Grandad

Sure it’s great to see them and the kids adore them and look forward to their arrival, but one of the major speed-bumps over Christmas is that inevitable clash of child-rearing techniques that occurs when old-school meets gentle-parenting.

Or to put it another way, when indulgent, adoring grandparents tread on the toes of a Mum or Dad at the end of their rope.

Some simple steps can prevent a nuclear fallout: let your children know well in advance that any sentence beginning with the phrase ‘Nana says I can…’ will result in the automatic removal of all Playstation privileges.

Similarly, let your parents know that they don’t have the authority to override your decisions and open criticism of your parenting is not acceptable.

Make them aware in advance that certain statements fromthem are bound to lead to disagreements. Examples to include: ‘you weren’t so well behaved when you were little’ or ‘why not let him have another sweet/stay up for another hour/play with power-tools in the house?’

Two: Sugar plus caffeine plus cabin-fever leads to anxiety

The kids woke you up at 5.30am and had selection boxes for breakfast while opening their presents.

Most of what Santa brought involves looking at screens, and a good deal of it makes lots of noise.

You make the full Irish for everyone at about 8.30am, and the kids wash it down with multiple glasses of Cola.

The first argument which almost degenerates into a fist-fight occurs at 10.15am when the middle child plugs out cousin Larry’s phone-charger to plug in his laptop, which hasn’t fully charged yet.

By midday, the twins are frothing at the mouth and battering each other about the head with presents Uncle Jim hasn’t opened yet, because he’s not coming until later on (he only gets to see his kids for a few hours Christmas morning, which no one is supposed to mention, as it upsets Gran to talk about it).

Dinner is supposed to be at 2.00pm, which is in an hour, but most of the kids are wild-eyed and still in their pyjamas.

There is only one thing to do, under these circumstances: those adults not involved in cooking dinner must be marshalled into getting all children dressed and bundled in coats and hats, and herding them somewhere strange and magical: outdoors!

A good rule to suggest to friends and family is that at least one present must be something that is not electronic and can be kicked, thrown or rolled. The only antidote to what I have come to think of as Christmas Day Mania (suffered by most kids at some point over the festive period) is a brisk run outside and a respite from eating sugary junk.

Which, of course, is easier said than achieved. Perhaps refer back to point number four, and replace some of those tubes of Pringles with some fruit, to be left in an easily accessible location and suggested every time a child grumbles about being hungry.

One: Be prepared for at least one tantrum – it’s not the end of the world

Your youngest has his heart set on the latest trendy toy. You were really well prepared and went and bought it early. It has pride of place under the tree. He rips it open, and the delight spreads across his face and warms your heart – for all of about thirty seconds.

‘It wasn’t that colour on the ad,’ he says warily. ‘My friend Freddy has one, and it looks different to this.’ ‘Well, Santa says this is definitely the right one,’ you say gently, feeling that sinking feeling. ‘But his spins and lights up – why won’t this one do that?’

‘It’s still in the box,’ you smile. ‘Let’s take it out and have a look at the instructions…’ but he’s already crying, and you hear a voice in your head tell you you’ve ruined Christmas. Which you haven’t, of course.

Kids build up momentous occasions, and particularly where they are being bombarded with ideas and images all the time, particularly a toy or a device which has a lot invested in it because all their friends have one, the reality just cannot match up to the fantasy they have created.

The tears will be short-lived. Let them have their tantrum, and when they are calmer, sit down and start again. Such things can feel devastating at the time, but this too shall pass.

And remember there will be other Christmases and other toys, or if all else fails just remind yourself that at some stage this evening, they will all be in bed. 

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

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