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Beat the stress, The National, 21.12.2010

For parents, Christmas can sometimes seem almost more trouble than it’s worth. Mercifully, Jo Wadham has come up with 10 tips to smooth the way and keep the festivities merry

The festive season is traditionally a time of friends, family, presents and good cheer. But it can also be a time of stress, arguments, indigestion and sobbing children. After much careful thought, and taking soundings from other parents, I have come up with some tips for a stress-free Christmas, or, The Slacker Parent’s Guide to Christmas Cheer.

Manage expectations

It’s the end of term, the children are tired, work is stressful as year-end deadlines loom, and then there’s Christmas, the pinnacle of the year for many of us, but laden with expectations and the pressure to create flawless memories for the children.

So, you tell yourself, this year Christmas will be perfect, with a Nigella-Lawson-style Christmas dinner and Santa bringing everything on the wish list.

“It has been said that expectation is the mother of dissatisfaction”, says Dr Justin Thomas, professor of psychology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. “This is a time of year when you have really high expectations, children particularly, of how wonderful it will be, or for parents, how wonderful it should be.”

Unrealistic expectations are very likely to be dashed. The key, says Thomas, is to deflate them carefully. If you can’t afford many presents this year or the entire Bakugan collection little Johnny asks for in his letter to Father Christmas is unlikely to appear, then gently forewarn the children. “Let people know what they are going to get, but obviously without spoiling the surprise,” says Thomas. “De-emphasise, downplay, rather than fan, expectations.”

It’s a wrap

On how many Christmas Eves, when I should have been lying on the sofa gorging on mince pies while ogling Daniel Craig on television, have I instead been wrapping presents and tying myself up with wayward sticky tape? No longer. This year I have taken up the offers of shop assistants to wrap the gifts for me.

There’s no point in being too proud to have store-branded wrapping paper on the gifts rather than carefully chosen snowflake-covered paper folded with origami-like dexterity. After all, that’s the bit the children throw away in their haste to see the toy inside, isn’t it?

Select gifts strategically

Where budgets allow, some cunning in the choice of presents can render benefits to the parents too. Avoiding too many fiddly little games that require close parental supervision should ensure the children have some things they can just get on with themselves.

After all, you want to encourage their independence and self-reliance don’t you? And when else are you going to get to play with your own presents or start cooking the parsnips?

Likewise, now could be the ideal time to introduce your children to early Disney or the dance routines of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers by ensuring there are some DVDs under the tree. Not only are they film classics and important cultural reference points, but they will give you a welcome respite from playing Monopoly and a chance to snooze gently on the sofa after all that turkey.

It goes without saying not to buy anything battery-operated without cornering the market in AA batteries beforehand. And that “Paint your own Wind Chimes” kit may seem marvellously practical and artistic, but do have a mind to the mess.

Avoid over-exposure

Spending time together as a family can be great fun and offer bonding opportunities, but to expect the whole family to rub along for several days without an argument or two is unrealistic.

Work may have been tough in the run up to Christmas, but rather than offering respite, being at home for the holidays can produce its own strains.

“Holiday times can be quite stressful,” explains Thomas. “You are out of your normal routine, and suddenly you have lots of time on your hands and there are screaming kids around at times you are not used to them being there.” He suggests having a plan of potential activities up your sleeve, or trips out of the house, to relieve those pressure points: “Without being too prescriptive, or a ‘fun engineer’, have a loose agenda in mind and steer people along that course.”

Of course, if you don’t end up taking a trip up the Burj Khalifa because you all just had to play Trivial Pursuit then great, but at least you had a fallback.

Engineer a little ‘me time’

It’s courting disaster to assume that you will all want to be with each other 24 hours a day. So if the children are keen to go to the cinema, arrange with your spouse that one of you takes them, while the other pops out for a run or a trip to the beauty salon. Alternatively, work out some “we time” and book the children into a kids’ club or holiday camp for a day.

Give clear invitations

“In social psychology we see interpersonal conflict and relationship discord which arise from non-correspondent outcomes,” Thomas explains. “The more people you have in a social setting the more you have outcomes misaligned which can be quite stressful, with lots of people wanting slightly different outcomes.”

If you are having guests join you for Christmas, make sure that they know what to expect. If your idea of a perfect Christmas is a quiet one with good food and company, and perhaps a few board games, make sure your guests know that and don’t turn up wearing comedy costumes with a bag full of karaoke Christmas CDs.

A working Christmas

Many people in the UAE have to work on Christmas Day. If you do, make sure you still celebrate. Have a mince pie for breakfast.

And afterwards …

Once Christmas is over, it can be quite deflating. To avoid the post-Christmas blues, plan something for that lull before the children return to school. Whether it is a trip to the aquarium, a ride on a tourist bus or an overnight stay in a hotel, give yourself a little something to pull you up as you clear away the tinsel and mend that remote control helicopter for the umpteenth time.


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