Nurturing Christmas Joy in Everyone by Peter Leonard
I have always had a bit of an unwritten rule that the Christmas decorations in our house don’t get put up until December. This year they went up on 29th November. We were not alone in trees with twinkling fairy lights, tinsel wrapped around mirrors and cinnamon smelling candles filling our home with light, smells, sparkle and joy. Christmas decorations do seem to have gone up in many homes significantly earlier than usual – including mine! Maybe there is a greater need for that joy I have just mentioned?
This year has been, and continues to be, difficult for many people. Even if we are fortunate enough to be personally spared from the worst effects of the cost of living crisis, none of us can escape the seemingly endless reel of bad news on TV and the radio. Stories of individuals, families and groups suffering both in this country and in horrific war zones around the world. It seems to me totally understandable that we would want to reach out for joy wherever it can be found.
Our vision at The Centre for Emotional Health is for everyone to live an emotionally healthy life and that applies at Christmas as much as at any other time of the year. At the core of our work is The Nurturing Programme which has four constructs providing us with the building blocks for emotionally healthy lives and relationships. They are always useful but are especially so when we are approaching a period when feelings are running high and relationships may be challenged. The four constructs are: Self-awareness, Appropriate expectations, Positive discipline and Empathy. Let’s take a look at each in turn and explore how they might be helpful to us all during the festive season.
© The Centre for Emotional Health 2023
Knowing ourselves well is a crucial component of keeping ourselves emotionally healthy. Christmas can provoke strong feelings in us – anxiety about whether the presents and meal will meet expectations, the stress of keeping everyone happy and having a good time, sadness about loved ones who cannot be with us or about past Christmases that weren’t what we’d hoped for.
Feelings provide us with valuable information about our needs and if we can take a moment to become aware of them, they may give us a clue as to how we can take care of ourselves. Rather than pushing difficult feelings away or dumping them on others, it can help to just acknowledge and name them, allowing ourselves to sit with and accept them. Sometimes we need to find assertive ways to express our feelings and needs, rather than being submissive, aggressive, or expecting others to be mind-readers, which can make us angry or resentful when they don’t respond the way we want.
Learning to be aware of our own needs and feelings and taking responsibility for them is good for us and others, and a good model for our children. Try to be aware of when you might need to take care of yourself for a moment, whether it’s going for a run, enjoying a soak in the bath, or making time for a phone call with a friend. Explain to those around you what you are doing and why it is important for you. Taking time to look after ourselves is not selfish, rather it is essential if we are to have the physical and emotional energy to invest in others.
Having appropriate expectations of ourselves and our children and teenagers can make everyone’s lives easier. Routine and structure are important, especially for younger children, but so is the excitement of deviating from routine on special occasions and developing our own traditions. Many things are different over the Christmas period, and this can be a source of great excitement but for some children it can also be exhausting and stressful. Preparing them for what the plans are, giving fair warning if you want help or if an activity they’re enjoying needs to end will all help, as will factoring in plenty of time for everyone just to relax, in their own space if need be.
We also need to have appropriate expectations of ourselves and our partners. It’s easy to believe that it’s the amount of money we spend, and the size of the meal we produce, that will make Christmas a success or failure. This can lead to inappropriate expectations of what we can provide. It is understandable that children may want what they can’t have, and we may feel guilty about that. However, research tells us that it is our ability to share family time and have fun together that’s most important in the long run.
The word discipline shares its root with the word disciple, a pupil or follower of a teacher or leader. Our role as adults in children’s lives is to teach and guide them. Rather than punishing children for difficult feelings or behaviour, adults need to help children to regulate their emotions and behaviour so they can return to a more balanced state – not easy with all the strong feelings around at Christmas time! Adults can help by a process of “co-regulation”; this requires us to regulate ourselves to provide the calm warmth, responsiveness, and sensitivity to support our child to self-regulate. Try to praise and appreciate your children and others whenever you can. Give choices and responsibility, and model taking time to calm down in a quiet space when you need it.
This is the ability to see things from another person’s emotional point of view. It can be hard to acknowledge and stay with our children’s difficult feelings. We often want to brush them away or try to fix it for them, to make it all better. Over this Christmas period try to name what you think your child is feeling, whether that’s excitement or disappointment, jealousy, or frustration. All feelings are valid, even if we need to set limits on the behaviour that might follow. Just accepting their feelings will help children to feel understood and help them to self-regulate. It works with adults too!
Whatever you celebrate, and whatever form it takes, we wish you a healthy and happy time over the Christmas period.
If you’d like more tools to help you navigate through Christmas, take a look at our Parent Zone for tips or at The Parenting Puzzle, our best-selling and practical guide to parenting from toddlers to teens.
About the author
Peter Leonard is the Chief Executive at The Centre for Emotional Health, a charity whose vision is for everyone to live an emotionally healthy life. They do this by promoting an approach to life and relationships that equips and supports families and communities to be emotionally healthy. They provide high quality training courses and resources for professionals working with people in a variety of settings including communities, education and the workplace. For more information, please visit their website and follow them on social media: https://www.emotionalhealth.org.uk/