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Present pressure and stressed out parents

By ANDREA CLIFFORD-POSTON [email protected]

Andrea Clifford-Poston is an educational psychotherapist and author of Tweens: What to Expect From and How to Survive Your Child’s Pre-Teenage Years (published by Oneworld) and When Harry Hit Sally: Understand Your Child’s Behaviour (published by Simon and Shuster).

I guarantee your happiest memories of childhood Christmases will involve fun and games with people you loved and unexpected small surprises.  

Looking forward to Christmas and anticipating what Santa would bring you are also likely to be high on the list. Yet many parents today feel that to make Christmas special they must give children the presents they want, whatever the expense. Two thirds of parents admit overspending and getting into debt at Christmas (Children’s Society 2007).  

We can explain this, firstly, with ‘pester power’ where children demand the latest gadgets and gizmos, often under the plea “Everyone else is getting one”. Such peer pressure has long been an issue for parents. However, parents now also have to contend with heavy advertising during children’s TV. “They always make the toys look better than they are, Action Figures are all given scenic settings to enhance them…” bemoaned one mother.  

Competition between parents to provide the ideal gift also plays its part. Parenting is a competitive experience from birth. At one time, family money matters were private but it is now quite common for parents to talk about how much they are going to spend on their children at Christmas. As one mother said: “My friends were saying they had a budget of 200 pounds sterling for each child. I agreed my budget was 200 pounds sterling but I didn’t add that it was 200 pounds sterling between the three children!”  

Christmas is a magnifying glass

There is no getting away from the fact that Christmas is a kind of magnifying glass for our daily lives.  Whatever we are feeling – happy, sad, stressed, lonely – we will feel more intensely at Christmas.  

What Christmas magnifies most is how your family celebrates each other.  How do people make each other feel loved and special?  

A few weeks ago, I was with a group of nine year-old boys who had just won the school football cup.  One boy at the centre of the group was passing round the latest Nintendo, a congratulatory present from his father.  Another boy tugged at his sweatshirt as he said to me blankly, “I don’t get presents or anything …” and then, beaming broadly, “… except my dad comes to watch …”  In another family, such successes were celebrated with a family meal to which all family members would make a contribution, whether adding Smarties to the cake icing or cooking the main course.  

If your family culture is that the bigger the present the more special and loved a person feels, it is going to be very difficult to resist pressure from your children at Christmas.  And for many parents hit by the recession, this Christmas is going to be particularly poignant.  

Parents want to give their children that perfect Christmas morning, eager for the moment when, tearing off the paper, the child gasps, a look of complete wonder and pleasure crossing their face.  

No wonder parents get into the muddle of thinking the perfect gift for your child is a talisman to secure their future, the wonder of Christmas morning will go on forever.

This may be particularly true for parents of teenagers who feel giving a much longed for present will buy peace in the home and also restore cracks in the parent/teen relationship.  

Resisting and managing ‘present pressure’

Present pressure is now the way of the world. Children are going to be exposed to materialism more than previous generations.  Parents are going to have to find ways of both managing and resisting the pressures on our children today.  

• How much children enjoy Christmas is going to depend very much on parents’ attitudes.  If you convey ‘this is fun’, whether it is simply playing games or going for walks together, the children will capture your spirit.  Parents may need to focus less on presents and more on family pleasures at Christmas.  

• In order to make sense of emotional situations children need the facts.  If you cannot afford expensive presents, you need to tell your children simply, honestly and age appropriately.  The notion of Father Christmas can be a real problem here.  One parent reported having this very conversation with his children only to get the response, “Oh daddy, Father Christmas will pay for it.”  He had to explain Father Christmas also has a limited amount of money.  

• Another complication is when children question why Father Christmas has brought them less than he may have brought their friends.  Try explaining to your children everybody is different and Christmas is different for everybody.  If appropriate, point out that your children get extra presents from relatives and friends, other children may not.  

• Avoid TV commercials or distract your children when they come on.  

• When a young child asks for presents avoid saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Try saying “put it on your list”.  Explain they won’t get everything on their list but they will get some things.  This keeps the sense of expectation alive without frustrating the child’s wishes.  

• If you want to buy a present you cannot afford for your child, how about asking other family members to contribute?

• With teenagers, check out the cry ‘everyone is getting one’ with other parents.  Many are often happy to agree with each other the limits of ‘must have’ presents.

• Just say ‘no’!  But at the same time let your child know you understand how they feel.  There is all the difference in the world between a blank refusal and ‘it’s very disappointing for you that you can’t have … but I’m afraid that is the way it is …’ Coping well with disappointment is an important lesson for children to learn.  

• Modern Christmases tend to be about stress, expense and overspending. Remember, your magical childhood Christmases were about simple pleasure and spending quality time together.