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How to manage expectations of children at Christmas

16 November 2021

No family is an island and children are exposed to a range of views about what Christmas should mean to them, and what to expect. Television, playground conversations and even well-meaning family members can all set unrealistic expectations of what young people believe will happen over the season.   

Thankfully, with a bit of planning, you can help to manage their expectations in advance, and ensure you have a family Christmas to remember, even if your budget and circumstances present challenges along the way. 

Family Action’s Deputy Director Catherine O’Melia oversees several services which provide relationship and family support. Here, Catherine shares some top tips from the services she manages on the best way to ensure household harmony.   

Ask them what’s important  

Speak to your children in advance of the big day and get a sense of what is important to them, as well as sharing what you think is special about Christmas. This will give you the chance to spend your time and money in the most effective way.   

If, for instance, after speaking to them you find out that they don’t like turkey that much, but they adore mince pies, then you can make a tactical decision to streamline your Christmas buying and so cut any costs that your family don’t feel are essential.   

You don’t have to have a turkey on the table but you do have to think about what the festive season represents for you.   

It’s about rephrasing that experience – find out what they want to do and talk about how you can build it in in a different way, then the dinner becomes more manageable and comes within a budget that is realistic for you.   

This is also good advice where presents are concerned and can be combined with a discussion about children’s lists for Father Christmas.   

Focus on the things they really want, and don’t be tempted to buy everything (remember that Father Christmas has limited space on his sleigh, so there isn’t space for multiple gifts for every boy and girl around the world).  

Focus on the things they really want, and don’t be tempted to buy everything (remember that Father Christmas has limited space on his sleigh, so there isn’t space for multiple gifts for every boy and girl around the world). 

Conversations like this are also a good opportunity to manage expectations in general about what the family can afford. It might be that you can address that some families have more money for all the trimmings at Christmas while also helping your children to recognise what they have, and the fun you can have together.  

It’s not about money 

There’s no doubt that Christmas can be an expensive time, but it’s also true that money is not what the real spirit of Christmas is about.   

Some of Family Action’s work involves helping parents unpick what Christmas represents to them and we tell them it’s not about spending thousands of pounds – it’s about spending time together and giving the whole family a time they’ll enjoy.  

It can be tempting to see children’s wishes as a problem we need to solve but try to reframe what you think the time is about and try to see it as an opportunity to focus on your family and their needs.  

But when it is about money… 

Despite all our good advice many families still feel under a huge burden to provide for their children at Christmas.   

The good news is that the season often brings out the best in people and there are ways you can access food hampers and toys if you are struggling to make ends meet.   

Many reputable charities, including ourselves and the Salvation Army, run Christmas toy appeals and food banks are also available for those who require a little support to fill the cupboards at Christmas.  

These are usually linked to local churches, children’s centres and schools across the UK, so if you think this is support that would help you this year explore what’s available in your local community.

For information about our FOOD clubs, which provides heavily discounted food to families across the country, take a look elsewhere on our site, or you can find out more about our Toy Appeal.


Talk to your extended family to set expectations 

Sometimes after discussing Christmas with your children you might find they have expectations which you can’t meet. It might be that they want to spend time with their favourite aunts or cousins or hope that a grandparent makes a special cake or sweet treat they adore.   

Share this with those people and discuss what you can do to fulfil those wishes. Perhaps you won’t be able to spend Christmas day together, but getting together a few days afterwards can be something lovely to look forward to.  

This also allows you to open up the conversation about people bringing contributions to the key meals and events over the Christmas season, as many family members love bringing a signature dish, which will save you time and effort and allow them to feel included.   

Your attention is the most important gift 

What our children want most is the attention of their parent, and sometimes bad behaviour is an attempt to get it.

Sometimes, our attention over the Christmas period can be distracted as we worry about the specifics of providing for our children during this stressful time.  

Try to take time out to think about how you can make the day special simply through being present and taking an active interest in spending time with your children.   

If you need inspiration check out our Christmas Calendar, it’s packed with simple and cheap ideas for spending family time together over the season.

Fresh air is free 

One piece of advice I can share from our services is to get outdoors with your children and get some fresh air as it really helps!  

It doesn’t matter where you live – even if you live in the city and only a small patch of grass in the local park is available, you can still find things to do outdoors to get rid of some of that pent up energy and stimulate their imaginations.  

Christmas itself offers lots of scope for activities, including looking at festive lights in your neighbourhood and planning scavenger hunts – all of which we cover in our guide to getting outdoors at Christmas.  

Everyone’s presents are second hand on Boxing Day 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we need to ensure that our children have shiny new presents to open on Christmas day, but buying first hand can be expensive, and won’t necessarily translate into better gifts for your little ones.   

Buying second hand via online auction sites, social media listings or charity shops can, therefore, take a lot of the pressure off you.  

Often you can pick up gifts which are still in their original boxes, but if not you can always pick up gift boxes and bags for a tactical reboxing before the big day. Just remember that by the time your child returns to school their peers won’t know what box their present came in.   

A note about Father Christmas 

Although the public perception of Father Christmas is usually wholly positive, our services dealing with trauma and special educational needs have highlighted that for some children the idea of a man coming into the house in the middle of the night can be an unsettling proposition.   

This is completely valid from a child’s point of view but thankfully our services have good advice for families where this might be the case.   

We’ve done some work around finding ways to frame the story so it’s helpful for families and what we’ve found is that it often helps if parents or carers clarify that they’ve spoken to Santa and asked him to knock on the door and let the grownups know he’s there when he visits their house.  

Doing so doesn’t invalidate other children’s experiences but allows families where this is a concern to address any fears their children may have.   

Don’t be offended if you get it wrong 

Ask any parent who has been doing it long enough and they will have made a mistake regarding Christmas – whether that’s forgetting a beloved Christmas treat their child had their heart set on, or buying the wrong gift.  

It can be upsetting when tears are involved but nobody’s perfect so remember to keep a sense of perspective and that you’re by no means alone. Getting it not quite right doesn’t make you a bad parent.   

That said, it helps to keep receipts for gifts and toys so you can promise a trip to the local toy shop to make amends after Christmas (this can even work to your benefit – allowing you to make the most of January sales, and prolonging Christmas excitement).   

Our FamilyLine service is a great resource for discussing the pressures that can arise when managing your children’s expectations at Christmas. You can get in touch via telephone, text message, email or webchat for emotional support and guidance as well as practical advice and information.