Real Living: Christmas with the brats

Children can make your Christmas - into a disastrous day of tears and tension. But it doesn't have to be that way, reports Hester Lacey

Christmas is a time of Angels, Santa, Turkey and Chocolate. It is also, however, a time of Anxiety, Stress, Tension and Carnage. Play Christmas word-association games with a group of stressed-out parents and it rapidly becomes apparent that the season of goodwill is also a season for familial tears and tantrums.

Hence the course run last week by educational therapists Jean Robb and Hilary Letts: a morning for parents to come to terms with ambiguous feelings about the festivities. Jean and Hilary run Successful Learning, which specialises in helping children who are branded slow, difficult or otherwise problematic at school to achieve their full potential, but they also run the occasional parenting session. And Christmas, they say, is a particularly sensitive time for parents. Bombarded as they are with images of happy, smiling families opening huge, perfect gifts before tucking merrily into mahogany-roasted turkey followed by immaculate flaming pudding, who wants to confess that the kids fought and grizzled all day, had to be pacified with telly, moaned about their presents and wouldn't eat the dinner?

Tales from the frontline abound from the dozen or so parents gathered in Jean's house in West Kirby, near Liverpool. The little boy who now draws a picture beside each entry on his Christmas list, ever since he received a train set that didn't feature Thomas the Tank Engine; his mum says ruefully that the Wrong Train Disaster could have poisoned the whole Christmas if she hadn't quick-wittedly blamed the fiasco on Santa. Other children, even more worldly-wise, submit their lists with catalogue numbers.

One mother calmly admitted that her best-ever Christmas was the one when her two young boys were down with chickenpox and "completely out of it" and she and her husband got away with sharing a bottle of wine on the double mattress they'd plonked down between the two sleepy invalids. Another's three-year-old dashed his parents' hopes by completely failing to recognise the entire concept of Christmas and completely ignoring his bulging stocking.

With other parents, it's their own parents who are the problem. "We still have to sit in silence for the Queen's speech,"sighed one. "They'd like us to stand for the anthem I'm sure, but we won't." "It's hard to be nice for a whole day to someone you don't even like," murmured one father of his in-laws.

There are two key concepts to bringing the whole circus back under control, say Jean Robb and Hilary Letts. The first is setting limits, which automatically means simplifying the whole occasion. Financial limits, preparation limits, limits to the amount of time you want guests in your house are all quite acceptable. The second, and most important, is managing your child's expectations and laying to rest the adman's fantasy. "Children can't discriminate between ads and factual information on television," says Jean. "It's important to sit down and talk about your family Christmas and distinguish it from what your children are seeing on the telly."

The children, meanwhile, are by no means unaware of the aggravation they can cause. When the parents have gone and it's the turn of the children that afternoon, their Christmas word-association throws up similar terms: pressured, frustrated, tired, nagging. "If you really want something you go on and on about it," says one. "I used to want a parrot and I'd leave little notes everywhere my dad went going on about this parrot. I'd even put stickers in his cigarette packet."

Asked what the most important thing about Christmas might be for their parents, answers range from having dinner together with all the family through to "having a few drinks" from one of the more honest youngsters. Asked how they might make their parents' Christmas better, there were not a few blank looks.

The parents from that morning, however, were already feeling better. As much as the practical tips they had gleaned, the feeling that they were not the only ones battling away was reassuring. "Dispelling the myths of that picture-book Christmas and finding it doesn't exist makes you feel better," said one mother. "It's reassuring to find that other parents have got little nightmares of their own," agreed another.

HOW TO SURVIVE IT

1. Don't start too early so small children are exhausted once the day arrives.

2. Don't take children shopping; it's not part of the Christmas treat for them.

3.Write lists. Plan ahead. But be realistic.

4. Have a glass of sparkling wine as soon as you get up on Christmas morning to take the edge off the day's tension.

5. Ask visitors to bring things; don't try and do it all yourself. Have a contingency plan to occupy children if it rains.

6. Have an area set aside where they can make a mess, assemble toys and kits etc without having to take them apart immediately because the table is needed for something else.

7. Have an occasional 10-minute clean-up session where everyone helps tidy up the worst of the mess.

8. Calm down hyped-up children with a drink of water and a piece of apple to partly negate all the junk food.

9. Keep your voice low, however silly they are being, and get them to lie still on the floor for a count of 10; if anyone moves starts counting again. Open a window and let in fresh air or go outside for a run or a stretch.

10. Tell visiting parents your rules.

11. Don't try to live up to other people's expectations.

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