This time of year has a tendency to quickly become hellish in our house. It’s not because of the dark evenings closing in, nor because the days are getting colder, though neither helps. It’s because of the festive season hurtling towards us.
It’s because of Sinterklaas, followed quickly in succession by his alter ego, Father Christmas.
Now I’ve nothing against the men in red personally, in fact I think they are magical children’s celebrations, but the stress in our home turns into a torrent of emotions and outbursts as pakjesavond on the 5th of December approaches.
This festive part of the year takes its toll on many children, particularly when they are young, but for a highly sensitive child, it’s almost too much to bear: The excitement of presents; of putting shoes out overnight for Piet to fill with a small present and sweets; Sinterklaas‘ helpers visiting the children in the classrooms; watching the Sinterklaasjournaal (a special children’s news program) everyday; my husband’s work party; a visit from the good Sint himself as a climax to the school celebrations; and finally the explosion of joy on the 5th of December as the presents are delivered and Pakjesavond is celebrated.
And then, when it is all over, the children barely have a chance to catch their breath before the Christmas activities begin.
It’s a season of overload. How do we help our HSCs through this busy period? It’s a learning process, but here are five things I’ve found that work for us.
1. Make Clear Overviews and Agreements
Discuss with your children what is happening and when – make a clear overview on a calendar. When does Sinterklaas arrive in the Netherlands? When do they leave their shoe in school? When will Sinterklaas visit their class? When is papa’s or mama’s work Sinterklaas party? Mark it clearly so that they can see how many sleeps it is until 5 December.
Agree how many times they can put their shoe down for a present – if they understand they can leave their shoe out once a week it cuts down on the anticipation and the excitement of the unexpected. Mark it on a calendar.
2. Focus Less on the Presents and More on the Meaning
Of course, the presents are a major source of excitement when it comes to Sinterklaas and Christmas, but making sure they share their focus on something else helps.
I have found that concentrating efforts on advent activities takes their daily focus away from Christmas itself.
Last year my three sons took it in turns to open an envelope which contained a special activity (and a chocolate coin). Activities ranged from a night time walk with lanterns to Christmas story time by candlelight, to donating items to food banks and children with much less than they have.
You can make the activities as calm and low key as you like. Their focus is taken away from the 25th of December and focused on day to day – the excitement is much less, and much more controllable. If you include things you may do anyway, then it works really well – like story time but with an added bonus of hot chocolate, or dinner by candlelight.
3. Talk to Your Children’s Teachers
If you know what your children will be doing in school, and when, you can co-ordinate and keep things low key at home.
This way you don’t plan a special family meal around the same days as the children’s class Christmas dinner. You don’t have them putting their shoe down at home on the same day as they leave their shoe out in the classroom. When the focus is on Sinterklaas or Christmas in the classroom, you can divert their attention after school with a different topic.
4. Let Some Things Go
Your child doesn’t have to take part in every single Sinterklaas or Christmas event that you hear about. Choose a couple of things they will enjoy and leave it at that.
You can leave a shoe at your local Albert Heijn and have it filled with goodies, you can watch Sinterklaas arrive in your local town this weekend, you can attend sing alongs and go to the cinema for the latest Sinterklaas movie. You can, but you don’t have to.
Remember that you have control over the activities that your children take part in when they are outside the classroom. Nothing is compulsory – even though it sometimes feels like it is, simply because we are all striving to make our children’s childhood memorable and happy. However, sometimes less is more. It really is.
5. Put an End to It All – or At Least Look at Alternatives
This ‘tip’ is a little dramatic, and one that I haven’t personally done. Just tell your children the truth. Sinterklaas is not real. Neither is Father Christmas. That was an option I was presented with last year from my support person (aka my rock) in the Dutch youth services. If the stress becomes too much, which is often the case with a HSC, then remove the source of stress.
I personally have not been able to take away that magic for him. He’ll find out soon enough – he’s in group 4 and last year was pointing out the flaws in the whole ‘flying in the sky’ ‘coming down the chimney’ premises.
We do however, let him lead what he can and can’t handle.
When he was smaller he hated the idea that the Pieten would be in our house at night. We told him they slipped in, left a present and went again. He was okay with that. As long as they weren’t staying long.
He refuses to leave his stocking on his bed and hangs it on the outside of his bedroom door instead. The idea that he could wake up and see someone in his room petrifies him. It means he wouldn’t sleep. His solution is an easy one and one he is happy with – and let’s face it, it makes filling his stocking easier too! We struck a happy middle for him – and there are lots more situations and examples where adapting things makes for less stress for our HSCs.
The key to this busy festive season is managing expectations and making things work for your own family. It’s about making it fun – or as the Dutch so beautifully put it – gezellig! Eliminate what doesn’t work for you and your children. Focus on what does.
Over to you: I would love to hear from you – Does your HSC get stressed and overstimulated at this time of year? What works for your family at this time of year?