As a mum of a 15-year-old and a 11-year-old, positive psychology expert Professor Lea Waters knows all about the challenges of staying focused on what’s important at Christmas.
“Whenever possible, we need to teach kids that Christmas is about caring, rather than consumption,” she says. “And that their value sits in who they are, not in what they own.”
We can all get caught up in the ‘Christmas bling’, but with a shift in focus parents can use the festive season to model some valuable lessons, she says.
“When you think about every religion, every philosophy, every way of life – for centuries there have been rhythms and rituals to the year, and Christmas is one of them.
“There’s a number of reasons for these rituals and a key one is to allow people to slow down, recharge and reconnect.”
In our busy world, slowing down and reconnecting with family and friends is not just enjoyable – it’s important for our health and wellbeing.
“We’re living in this hyper adrenalised, road runner, technology-driven society, with too many of us experiencing high levels of stress,” says Professor Waters.
“The compression effects of living too fast take their toll on families, and in particular, on teenagers who are reporting higher levels of mental illness.”
Slowing down and reconnecting is the antidote, she says.
“It’s not how much money we spend or how perfect the table looks,” she says. “It’s about connecting with the people we love and thinking about how we can help others less fortunate than ourselves.”
So – how do we go about doing that? Especially with a cynical teenager?
As parents, it’s important to model positive behaviours, says Professor Waters.
“It’s all very well for us to say ‘Christmas isn’t just about presents’, but if all kids see are presents, then what else are they going to think?”
1. Role model generosity
Christmas provides the perfect opportunity to role model generosity, for example by donating to a charity you support as a family, or by donating a gift through initiatives like the Target & UnitingCare Christmas appeal or the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal.
“It’s a particularly great way for young children to put themselves in the shoes of another child who doesn’t necessarily have the same gifts, not just in terms of stuff, but in terms of gifts like ‘family, safety and love’ too.”
2. Be thankful
Professor Waters says practising gratitude is particularly important at Christmas time, in order to balance the focus on accumulating new ‘stuff’.
“If your kids are writing Christmas lists, why not also sit down as a family and write a Christmas list of the ‘gifts’ you already have, like each other, school, home and friends,” she says.
Research has consistently shown that people who express gratitude feel healthier and happier.
“Taking a moment to reflect on what we already have, rather than on what we want, can be really beneficial.”
3. List your family’s strengths
Focusing on each family member’s unique strengths can be a positive way to celebrate what they bring to family life.
“Some kids who are really creative could make the Christmas cards, others who are natural organisers could be the party planners or another who is imaginative could invent an advent calendar game to do as a family each day,” says Professor Waters.
“Including children in creating a holiday season is really deep modelling that this time of year is about family and relationships, as well as celebrating what everyone in the family has to offer.”
4. Slow down
“We should all model slowing down at Christmas, but paradoxically we often find ourselves speeding up instead,” says Professor Waters.
And while this may be easier said than done, savouring being in the mind, rather than fretting about achieving the perfect Christmas, is good for everyone.
“We need to let go of perfection and give ourselves permission to be human,” she says. “You don’t have to have the perfect Christmas tree, the decorations don’t need to match.
“Instead, show your kids that this time of the year gives us permission to slow down, savour time together, and take some time off.”
5. Set an emotional goal
Professor Waters suggests setting a goal at the start of the festive season for how you’d like to feel on Boxing Day.
“Think about how you would like yourself and your kids to feel on Boxing Day; having an emotional goal like being at peace, calm and connected can be a really good way to think about the Christmas period.”
Keeping that goal in mind can help make decisions like whether you need to attend yet another party, or buy so many new toys for the kids.
“Putting your energy into how you want your family to feel can really help guide your decision making during the Christmas madness,” says Professor Waters.
Professor Waters’ book The Strength Switch, published by Penguin Books Australia, outlines how we can help our children build resilience, optimism and achievement by focussing on their strengths rather than correcting their weaknesses.