The holiday season is here, which typically equals a lot of excitement, fun, and change to routine for young children. But, as adults, sometimes our expectations and, let's face it, the expectations of family members are not in line with the reality of what young children can handle.
While this year may still be a little different in terms of gatherings and travel, parents can help manage expectations, whatever that looks like for your family. Part of setting expectations may also be acknowledging how it will be different and what things will still be the same. This can help minimize any grief your child may have over the loss of a “normal holiday.” The sadness may still come, so make room for it and keep the pace a little slower and more predictable.
If you do expect to see family, prepare them for that as well. During family holidays, children are expected to stay up later, skip naps, and say please and thank you A LOT. Children are often expected to dress up, sit at the table longer, and make conversation while eating different foods, including loads of sweets, while tired and overstimulated. This is often a recipe for those “All eyes on YOU holiday meltdowns.”
Why They Happen
Children thrive on routine as grounding points, so when routines get thrown upside down, children don’t know what to expect and the little control they have over their lives vanishes. Their brains simply are not developed enough to maintain composure for long periods of time, especially under stressful circumstances. Yes, holidays, and even excitement, can qualify as stressful. Excitement is a strong emotion and paired with so many things that are unexpected and require flexibility, children’s brains aren’t always prepared to digest it all.
With what we do know about children and their brains we can get ahead of this in a few ways that will help them prepare for what is ahead. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Prepare Ahead of Time
Any information you have that might help a child understand what to expect is helpful. You can give them information about who will be at any gatherings (or video call as the case may be), what things might happen, when dinner will be ready, when presents will be opened (one family did one present an hour to keep things fun but relaxed all day), and what kinds of activities they will do. The younger the child, the more visual aids like photos will help them understand.
Keep Some Touchpoints
Touchpoints are familiar people or things that help ground children. Touchpoints can be anything from a favorite stuffed animal to a familiar food at dinner on a table full of unfamiliar foods. These touchpoints help children feel more stable and in control.
Stick to Sleep Routines
The number one tantrum causer is lack of sleep, because with lack of sleep comes a lessened ability to regulate and a more heightened nervous system. So often, parents are tempted during holidays to “just let them skip nap this once,” or “let them stay up late, they’ll be fine.” That sounds nice in theory until you fast forward to a cranky, inconsolable child while everyone else can’t understand what could possibly be the matter. A well-rested child will be a much happier child, even if no one else connects the dots, it’s one worth setting boundaries for. You’ll thank yourself and get a little break here and there too.
Build in Quiet Time
Depending on the age of the child it’s great to find a quiet corner to escape to in order to get ahead of overstimulation. For small children, you may try to do this once an hour, for older kids it might be just once or twice in a day. Try reading a book or just going for a walk so when you return, they can succeed in being flexible and calm. It’s like building in a cup of zen a few times a day.
Handling the Inevitable Meltdown
Once you’ve done all you can for prevention, chances are, there will still be a meltdown or two and when that happens here’s what you can do to help your little person through it. It will help them feel more connected and aid in getting that brain back to its calm, collected center.
Take Them To The Quietest and Most Private Place Possible
When you see signs of upset, rather than let it escalate, it’s helpful to take your child to a calmer, more private spot to regulate. When the environment is loud and chaotic, upset will happen faster. Try going outside, in an empty room, or for a walk until the feelings have passed.
Get Down Low To Eye Level Or Below
Brain science shows that getting low lessens the brain’s perceived threat and makes the amygdala feel safer. So if a child is showing signs of losing their cool, getting down to their level while communicating will help them see you as an ally, rather than an adversary.
Empathize and Active Listen
Once you’re in a calm place and are ready to talk to them, empathy is your meltdown secret weapon. Active or Reflective Listening helps soothe the brain by sending the message that the other person is understood and that what they are going through matters. It’s a way of describing facts and how they might be feeling about those facts. Active Listening clarifies the child’s meaning and sounds more like a question than telling them how they feel. That might sound like:
Parent: “You really didn’t like it when Daddy told you that you couldn’t have that cookie after I told you you could, did you..?”
Child: “No! He’s the worst!”
Parent: “You sound pretty mad at him! I bet you didn’t like to be told what to do again...”
Child: “No, everyone keeps bossing me around!”
Parent: “That can be pretty frustrating, can’t it?”
Child: “It is...Can you go tell Dad that you said I can have the cookie?”
Parent: “I sure can, I got your back…”
Make a plan to re-enter when ready.
Notice above the child calmed down and was ready to figure out how to solve their problem. So now might be time to ask if they’re ready to go back to the festivities.
An example of this could be:
Parent: “Are you ready to do that now or do you need a few more minutes of quiet?”
Child: “How about you go get me the cookie and we’ll snuggle a little more?”
Parent: “That sounds nice. It is kinda relaxing in here, isn’t it? It’s nice to have a little break sometimes.”
Whether you are staying home with your own immediate family, seeing family under Covid friendly guidelines, or having a few guests from your covid pod over, holidays can be challenging for any family with children. You may not avoid meltdowns all together, but hopefully, these tips will help you handle them with more confidence and ease. We all need an extra dose of that this year!
Happy Holidays and you can follow me at RespectfulParent.com to see what I’m offering in the NEW YEAR!
This guest blog was written by Kelly Meier. A mom, certified Parent Effectiveness Training Instructor and Parent Coach in San Diego, California helping parents find the balance in parenting.
Children come in all varieties of temperaments and Kelly has knack for relating to even the strongest of wills which allows her to see all children, as capable, whole people and in thus helps her guide their parents to begin to see them in a less challenging way. You can stay up-to-date with Kelly at www.respectfulparent.com