Let kids do Christmas their way, says Dr Sue

Children can continue to amaze you if you do stop and listen, paediatrician Sue Packer tells KATHRYN VUKOVLJAK

Community paediatrician Dr Sue Packer… “Children are particularly vulnerable because they pick up on this idea of spending money to buy happiness.” Photo by Kathryn Vukovljak

CHRISTMAS can be a difficult and challenging time for kids, says community paediatrician and former Canberra Citizen of the Year Dr Sue Packer.

Mother of three and grandmother to three little ones, all of whom live in Canberra, Sue says that often kids have too many toys and clothes, and that it’s becoming harder to get a feeling of specialness for anything.

“Christmas is so commercially driven and there are enormous levels of complexities here,” she says.

“Children are particularly vulnerable because they pick up on this idea of spending money to buy happiness.

“Many parents will spend six months planning Christmas with limited money, and it’s pretty well always a disappointment because your dreams become impossible.

“To begin with, the food isn’t important to the children. If the grown-ups want food, that’s fine, but the kids will be overwhelmed with excitement and presents.

“If they eat a sausage that’s probably all they’ll manage, so don’t worry about trying to involve them in any of that. Just have stuff they like, a bowl of cut-up fruit or bits and pieces they can help themselves to.”

Sue, who helped set up the ACT’s Child At Risk Health Unit in 1990 and has worked extensively with troubled children, says it’s also a hard time for divorced families where the kids are expected to do Christmas twice within 24 hours.

“The children do have some idea of what’s expected of them, that they’re to be grateful and excited all over again, where for many they are already blaming themselves for the break-up anyway, with thoughts of: ‘If I’d been good, it wouldn’t have happened’.

“It can become the most dreaded part of the holidays.

“I’ve seen through my work the uncertainty of violence, the differing response to the same situation. It often comes after Christmas, when the bills come in.

“And it is so often tied up with mental health problems, alcohol at this time of year and the parents’ reflections on their sadness about their own childhood. It can be a bit of an emotional stewing pot.”

Sue says that the idea of children making a Christmas list is a good one, but that it doesn’t hurt to have the moral discussion that some children can’t get many things and we don’t want to be greedy.

“I think it’s reasonable to ask, what would be the one most special thing you would like to have,” she says.

“We do tend to get carried away and it’s worth remembering that kids can’t really take in more than a few presents anyway and not to be saying: ‘Look at this, open this one’.

“Let them sit down and do it their own way. You can then discover the things they really like, the things they can explore and if they want you to read the book in the middle of it all, they’ll most likely be too excited to finish it but you can read a little bit.

“I think remembering that it’s largely their special day and trying not to have them tearful and scolded and being good and not noticed, when you’ve got them all hyped up.”

Sue believes that taking the time to have a relaxed bedtime is very important, particularly at Christmas.

“It’s that by-the-way statement you’ll hear as you’re turning off the light at bedtime that you need to pay attention to, because it’s only when they’re soothed down enough that it comes out,” she says.

“You can’t be rushing off somewhere else. Take the time at bedtime, ask them questions, like what’s the loveliest thing that happened today that you’d like to go to bed thinking about? You need to give kids some hints about these things and it then becomes a good mental health strategy for the future.

“You can then reinforce it by saying: ‘What I’m going to remember is this thing that was just so lovely’, and it becomes something you do before you go to sleep.

“And it’s a perfect time to ask a child this at Christmas: ‘What do you think made Christmas special this year? What should we do next year?’ We’re not curious enough about what it’s all like from their perspective.

“They can continue to amaze you if you do stop and listen.”

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