Help for Holiday Meltdowns

Your child will have big feelings when a special holiday or birthday comes up. It's one child-rearing phenomena you can set your clock by. But it may help to know that every other family deals with the same phenomenon you do.

Children are built to have big feelings on big occasions.

Why? When any holiday or birthday rolls toward a family, they get less relaxed time with us. They have more expectations of “good behavior” at homes they're not familiar with, and among people they may not know well.

Children's hopes soar in anticipation of a special occasion. When hopes are high, both children and adults can feel disappointments much more acutely.

A third factor is the principle that the greater the number of loving family and friends gathered in one place, the higher children's feelings rise. Eventually, they hit the wall. They can't go another moment without exploding in feelings.

It happens in every family, every holiday, because it must. Their systems must eject the bad feelings, but when they're done releasing, they can be reasonable, thoughtful, and flexible again.

It helps to be prepared

holiday-meltdownsJust as you are in the habit of preparing yourself for the quirks in your relatives' behavior, you can prepare to handle your child's meltdown. When you see that things are getting tense, you can move toward the tension, instead of away from it. You set yourself up for disappointment every time you think, “Maybe this time, he'll calm down all by himself.”

Move toward a tense child to play with him for five or ten minutes before leaving for Grandma's, eliciting as much laughter as you can (without tickling) so he feels more connected to you.

Or gently but firmly set a limit if his behavior has already gone off track. After you set the limit, stay with him and gently assist him to release the upset through crying or tantrums. Hold the limit and love the child.

What children need is simple

They need the chance to have their cry, express their disappointment, tantrum fully, or laugh a good while. When they're done, they can feel your love again. They notice the needs of the people around them, and show their genius for loving and living life well.

Prepare for criticism from others

Very few people understand how healthy a good cry or tantrum is for a child, and how deeply it improves a child’s behavior to have the parent listen and care through the storm. You don't need to bow to other people’s worry or disapproval. If you’re in a public place, you’re not in charge of making sure that every passerby has a mellow day. With your family, you know who will be upset, so think ahead of time about what you might want to say.

“Well, at least he's doing a good job of getting this out,” and “We'll go into the back room so you don't all have to hear about it. Save some pie for us!” are great examples.

We need time to express our feelings, too

Holiday expectations are often a heavy load for parents. We need to find a caring adult who can help us take the edge off our frustration, anger, or other feelings that special occasions trigger for us.

When you don't have a listener handy, but your feelings are close to the surface, it can work to play music that moves you, call a good friend, or rent a movie you know will let you cry. Your mind will release the tensions that pinch if you can find a way to allow yourself a good healthy meltdown, too.

We also recommend taking the pressure off yourself. Your celebration doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. Rather than dragging yourself and your family through all the expected rituals, you can decide what kinds of things you want to do. You can always go back to the old way next time.

You can schedule Special Time every day during the busy times, so that your children have the sense of connection they need to operate on a more even keel.

And what about the times when a holiday has driven you over the brink? Thanks to children's inborn healing process, the damage can be undone with an apology and some listening.

Here is one mother's holiday meltdown story:

“I had just walked in the house with the kids and my seven-year-old son went right over to the Christmas tree and started “fixing” the lights. I had just put them on the tree. He messed them up, and I got mad. I blew it, basically. I said, “What are you doing! You wrecked it. I can't believe you did that!” I went on and on. It's so awful when you make such big obvious mistakes.

Anyhow, he put his head in the sofa pillow and cried. So I went over to him. He kept turning away from me. I apologized. I said I'd made a mistake. I asked him if he wanted to fix the lights now and he wouldn't even look at me. I told him I knew he was trying to help. He was crying.

He moved away from me. Previously, when he was upset and I moved close to him, he would fight me off wildly. So I decided not to move toward him. I stayed on the sofa and kept talking to him. I kept asking him if he would come sit in my lap. This made him cry harder. But I kept inviting him to come to me. After a few more minutes of feelings, he came and jumped on my lap. I told him again that I was sorry. Then I said that moms make dumb mistakes sometimes, and that this one had been pretty dumb. He laughed, and we were feeling close again. We wrestled and played for a little while. Then I asked him if he wanted to fix the lights. He said yes, jumped up, and fixed the lights.”

When your child feels hurt and you offer love and acceptance, it often speeds the healing process by helping the child cry more intensely. He gets the upset out of his system faster because love is pouring in.

The loving things you say don't look like they're helping. Your child is crying harder and acting more hurt than ever. Reaching out and listening while your child cries hard is a powerful formula for mending the trust between you.

Afterward the special occasion can proceed. You’ll have a more relaxed child, and you’ll be pleased with yourself for offering your love at a time when he really needed it, and used it well.

From the Hand in Hand Toolbox:

Worried about kids not eating at the family dinner table? Here's 2o Playful Ways to help them sit, stay and eat.

Get this special time booklet and make the most of one-on-one time with your child.

Need a holiday read?  Listen: Five Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges gives you five tools and 100s of examples of them in use by real parents.

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