If you're anything like me, the summer holidays fill you with just a little bit of dread. All those long, long hours to fill, ALL the meals and snacks ALL of the time, the shouting and the tears (from both you and the kids...) and the non stop negotiating.
In a bid to feel a little bit more prepared and capable, I hosted a Summer Holiday Preparedness Challenge in the Nourished Mums community and thought it might be useful to have the main points available as a blog post for easy reference. Do join the community to hear me talk in depth about these topics in some live videos.
Below are my 7 main steps to making the holidays go a little more smoothly and a little less frazzled.
You've got to love a list and even if you never end up looking at it, it feels so good to be prepared!
For the holidays I do what I call macro and micro planning.
We have a list for half days / whole days out, and a separate list for stuff to do at home for a few hours, like crafts, games and toys that haven't been out for a while. I love pinterest for suggestions, as long as I don't expect our crafts and activities to turn out like the ones in the pictures!
Meal and snack planning.
Preparing food when the kids are at home all day is pretty relentless, isn't it? Taking some time before the holidays (and before your next food shop) to brainstorm some meal, picnic and snack ideas will pay huge dividends. Older kids can help put the lists together, optimizing the chances of the food actually getting eaten, too.
And when it comes to snacks, try to come up with some food combinations that will keep your kids fuller for a little longer (you can but hope!). Adding some protein is a great idea. So something like cheese sticks, yoghurt, some nuts if they like them and dips alongside crackers, breadsticks and / or fruit. I've always found a little selection of snacks keeps them busier for longer, too. Added bonus.
Most importantly - plan something for yourself! Some regular things during the holidays (a walk in the evening, the gym, a haircut etc) so that you're not finding yourself 2 weeks in and absolutely burnt out. And something to look forward to after the holidays are over, even if it's just a coffee with a friend to have an actual, uninterrupted conversation! Call that friend and book it in now!
2) Decision Fatigue and lowering Expectations
Something a lot of people don't know is that willpower is not open ended. It runs out and there's even a word for it - decision fatigue. The more decisions you have to make in a day (and that includes answering a toddler's questions!), the harder it gets to make positive and healthy choices. The quickest and easiest choices become the most tempting, which is how freezer dinners for the kids, and a glass (or 2) of wine and a face full of crisps happens for me. I don't want to be speaking on behalf of anyone else, but I'm pretty confident that I'm not alone in this....
Your decision making ability, and how quickly it runs out, is unfortunately also effected by things like stress levels and lack of sleep - a pretty lethal and permanent combo if you have small kids.
But there are some things you can do to help:
- Make plans. See point 1 above! If you have stuff planned out and written down, it's much easier to stick to and there's much less room for panic decisions.
- Make decisions early in the day when your willpower is at its least depleted.
- Delegate. Is there anyone that can take some pressure off you?
- Prepare things in advance if possible, like packing a picnic or laying out clothes the night before. If you're like me however, due to utter exhaustion come the kids bed time, this hardly ever happens. As nice as it would be. Which leads to the next point rather seamlessly.
Interruptions can really zap your willpower (and patience!), too, and be the reason why it can take 45 minutes to pack a picnic for three people.
It takes a disproportionate amount of time to get back into the zone of what you were doing after you've been interrupted, whether that is making a sandwich or trying to write a report at work. So the more interruptions, the longer it will take you to do anything.
If you have older kids it shouldn't be too hard to ask them to give you 10 minutes or to offer some help that's actually helpful. If you have younger kids, the whole scenario gets a little more taxing so here are some suggestions that I've found helpful:
- Set a timer. Young kids love to watch an egg timer. You can agree on how many times it needs to be turned over and they can be in charge of that. Or you can set an alarm on your phone, or your alexa if you have one. Then they can ask her how much longer it is, rather than you!
- Get kids to "help". While they might not be able to do anything actually helpful, they can have a great time pretending. There are fab safe knives for kids that they can use from around 2.5 years old. At which point they're really happy butchering some cucumber slices.
I often get out a bowl of water and let the toddler "wash" some cherry tomatoes. Keeps her happy for ages! Or I just let her snack on stuff that I'm packing as a last resort. Anything to get it done!
- Screen time. Sometimes only bringing out the big guns helps, and if 20 minutes of TV / laptop time will get you out of the door quicker, I'm all for it!
3) Lower your Expectations
THE best thing to avoid disappointment is to set the bar lower for yourself and be realistic. Don't expect whole days to go swimmingly with no cross words spoken or drinks spilled. Anticipate roadblocks and accept that there will be a lot of whining, arguments and badly timed toilet breaks. You won't feel half as stressed when these things happen if you're half expecting them.
Only do what's manageable for you and your family and don't compare yourself with others. They might be posting smiling pictures on glamorous beaches, but if the thought of getting on an airplane with your kids fills you with dread, why compare and be jealous? Own what you and your family do and what you enjoy doing.
4) Resilience through Mindfulness
Here's where things get a little more woo woo, but it really is where the magic happens. If you can manage to be a little more present and in the moment every day, you'll end up enjoying your time with your kids a lot more. Because your brain won't be galloping away with 25000 thoughts of what else has to be done that day, and instead just focusing on whatever it is you're doing. It takes some practice, isn't always possible and you'll need to constantly remind yourself, but it's more than worth it.
You'll actually stop to enjoy that cup of coffee, that sunset, the kids playing nicely for 2.5 seconds. And you'll know for a fact that you've locked your car, because you consciously paid attention when you did it. Anyone else often check immediately after you've locked the car to see if you've locked it??
Mindfulness practice doesn't mean stopping to smell each and every flower or trying to enjoy every moment. It's purely about noticing what you are doing (without judgment) and acting on what this particular moment requires of you. For example, if you're getting your kids dressed and it's taken you 15 minutes already, you can get angry and resentful because you're running late and you have so many other things to do, or you can focus on what you need to do to finish what you're doing. Staying calm but firm to persuade those little folk to get ready.
As I said this takes some practice and my favourite way of doing this is by physically talking my way through it. I will tell myself (quietly, in my head) "Look at that blue sky, isn't that stunning today", "this coffee is good", "I'm now locking the front door" or, because it's not just about the good stuff "Crickey, I'm struggling with noise today".
If you're feeling really frazzled, simply repeating in your head "I am breathing in, I am breathing out" can be super calming and grounding. More on breathing in a couple of points time.
By bringing yourself back into the moment repeatedly, you are growing more and more resilient and will bounce back from all sorts of set backs quicker, as your brain learns to not dwell on things or run away with a million thoughts. More on some brain tricks next!
5) Beat the dread with Gratitude, Intention and Reflection
For a really long time when my youngest was a baby, I'd wake up in the morning to the sound of her screaming, and my first thought was "Great, that's at least 14 hours until I get a break". Every single morning. Not a nice way to live to start the day with dread like that.
The whole parenting 2 kids thing shifted to a better place when I started using gratitude and intentions on a regular basis.
Gratitude basically entails regularly noting what you are thankful for and it not only boosts your mood, but also trains your brain to seek out the positives around you. Our brains are hard wired to hone in on the negatives at lightning speed to keep us safe. It dismisses positive things very quickly and doesn't register them as readily. So by using gratitude (and maybe some mindfulness from the last point), we let our brain marinate in feelgood hormones and get to reap the rewards.
Intentions are like little mantras you give yourself every day that describe how you'd like your day to pan out or how you'd like to feel. I like using things like calm, gentle, joyful, focused, patient - depending on what the day ahead looks like. You can come back to the word or phrase you've chosen when your day gets stressful or runs away from you. It can act like an anchor to bring you back on course.
Initially I didn't have the time to do this in writing, so was just thinking about these things, but if you're able to use pen and paper for this, it is a lot more effective.
Starting the day with listing 3 things you're grateful for and your intention is such a positive way to get going. You could also set yourself a little gratitude alarm for a time in the day when you know it's going to be hectic. A quick breather and thinking of some of the good stuff in your life can really give you a boost to get you through the next couple of hours.
In the evening, whenever I have time, I like to reflect on the day and note what has gone well and what hasn't. Again, just thinking about this is fine, but written down is the gold standard. Give yourself a well deserved pat on the back for the stuff that went well. Really acknowledge what you've accomplished (and yes, keeping kids alive and fed counts!) and learn from what didn't go so well. Think about how you could tackle the situation should it come up again. Preparing yourself in this way can really have an impact on your stress levels, because over time you'll feel much more equipped for whatever life, and your kids, throw at you.
6) Stress Coping Strategies
The way your brain and body cope with and perceive stress hasn't really changed since caveman times. When we feel acute stress, our brain wants us to get to safety because it thinks we're going to be eaten by something higher up the food chain. Your brain can't differentiate your baby screaming in the back of the car from being chased by something dangerous. It doesn't differentiate and its reaction is the same. It switches on your fight, flight or freeze response which pumps adrenalin into your system and makes your heart race.
And low level, chronic stress isn't much better. It chips away at your health and wellbeing and uses up all your reserves.
Below are some of my favourite stress management tools to deploy in moments of high stress or when I'm just really fed up with everything, aiming to counteract some of the negative side effects of stress.
Presence and Safety.
The most basic and most effective thing you can do is simply to bring yourself into the moment (see mindfulness above) and remind yourself that you're safe. Whatever is going on may be annoying, frustrating, irritating or upsetting, but your life is not in danger. You're safe. It sounds silly, but it really works. Your brain will appreciate the reminder, I promise.
Name it to tame it.
We talk our toddlers and children through their tantrums and emotional upheavals along the lines of "you're sad because we've had to leave the playground", "you're angry because I wouldn't let you climb on the table", or "it really hurts when your friend doesn't invite you to her party" to help them learn what certain emotions feel like and how to manage them. Some of us might not have been taught how to do this when we were kids, or we've forgotten about it. It's time to bring it back! Simply acknowledging the emotions and feelings you're experiencing helps your brain to focus, instead of racing off into a blind panic. By stating something like "I'm about to lose my patience", "I'm frustrated and exhausted because the toddler didn't nap today" or "the constant noise is really overwhelming" will take the edge off the intensity of whatever is going on.
Seems almost too easy, but I promise it works.
Posture and body language.
Another really simple thing to put into practice is to adjust your posture. Stand a little taller, plant your feet strongly and roll your shoulders back. You'll not only be able to take deeper breaths this way, you'll feel more powerful and in control instantly.
Breathing (in a few different ways).
Simple deep breaths are your go to here. How many times have you gotten to the end of the day, breathed a deep sigh of relief only to realize that you haven't taken a big breath in all day. Shallow breathing is so common when you're busy and slightly stressed and it plays into the flight or fight response. By just breathing a little deeper and a little more consciously you'll switch on your parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates your rest and digest response. And you'll also get more oxygen into your system, which is never a bad thing.
Follow your out breath.
A little useful twist on simple deep breathing is to pay a little more attention to your out breath. This is incredibly grounding and refreshing if you are feeling very overwhelmed and anxious. Simply focus on the act of breathing out. Feel your chest falling, lungs deflating and the air leave your throat and nostrils. Repeat a few times and prepare to be astounded by the effects.
Counting as you breathe.
A double whammy approach to distract your brain from any monkey mind, racing around activities. Focusing on both your breath as well as counting your in and out breath means that your brain can't focus on much else and goes into a little enforced break. Leaving you much refreshed afterwards! Like closing some tabs on your computer might make it work a little more efficiently.
I use this approach in 2 ways. While walking on the school run, with both kids chatting to me while the dog pulls to go the other way, I'll sync my breath and the counting to my steps to create a slightly meditative effect.
And when I need to cuddle my toddler for the 16th time to help her go to sleep, I'll count and breathe as I sway. I figure that counts as meditation and mindfulness all in one!
My all time favourite trick when I'm feeling super overwhelmed. Look up, either at the horizon, the sky, or your living room ceiling. The first 2 are a little prettier, but all are effective. Taking the time to take in the scenery signals to your body that there is no life threatening danger and it's safe to relax. Sounds mad, but works.
3 Things you can Hear / Feel / See
Another favourite in times of high anxiety and overwhelm. Notice three things you can hear, feel and see to bring your mind into the present and feel yourself focus and slow down. Repeat a few times if needed. Brings you back into the moment unlike anything else I've tried.
There's nothing like movement to get you out of your head and into your body. Pick some stretches or yoga moves if you are feeling frazzled and exhausted, or something more energetic like star jumps or a dance around your kitchen if you have some nervous energy to get rid of. Add music for extra mood boosting, calming or energising properties.
A word on coping strategies around stress before we move on. It's absolutely fine to have a glass of wine to take the edge off sometimes. But if you find that this becomes your main coping tool, you may be in a bit of trouble. Ideally you want 5 or so tools, to use in the moment or at the end of the day, to get you through particularly stressful patches. If you find yourself lacking in ways to manage stress, take another look through the list above and pick a couple to give a try.
And most importantly - if you find yourself having a bad day, do whatever you have to, to get through the day. Cut yourself some slack and serve up cereal for dinner. They'll love it and there'll be minimal washing up. Everybody wins!
To stop everything going completely haywire, take some time to think about what boundaries can be put in place to protect some sort of order, and your sanity, over the holidays.
For yourself - what needs to happen on a daily basis so that you can function well? What are your non negotiables? For me it's a shower and some sort of quiet time either reading or meditating even if it's just for 5 minutes every day, and exercise at least twice a week. If any of that falls by the way side for too long, things (read: me) get unpleasant.
For the kids - work out what is honestly important to you, parenting wise, and set boundaries around those activities accordingly. Screen time, treats, gift shop rules, bed time etc.
Also look at boundaries that could be shifted in the new school year. Use the summer break to re-calibrate, step back and see what could be moved / cancelled or handled differently come September. Are all the clubs and classes still being enjoyed? Can some be cancelled? Or can you take turns with another parent to drop off / pick up to give each other a bit of a break? Is there anything that YOU would like to fit in - a hobby or an exercise class maybe.
Possibly the most important point, and my favourite thing to say to mums is this: cut yourself some slack. This mothering gig is no picnic. Or maybe actually it is, but one that you have to make yourself and lots of kids attend who don't listen, don't eat anything and run around like a herd of baby orangutans. And then it starts raining. You get my drift. It's not easy and we're pushed to the limits of what we can do every single day. We're doing a great job and need to remind ourselves of this a lot more.
And we need to be nicer to ourselves. Stop the negative self talk in our heads about how we're not good enough and instead become our biggest cheerleader. Because we're pretty awesome and show up to this mothering gig every single day, whether we feel like it or not.
Most of the points above will take some practice, and not all of them might resonate with you. It's all about testing things out, finding what works for you, tinkering with it and changing it as needed and then practicing it regularly.
I'd love to know which points resonates with you the most and if there are any others you would add?