Five Playful Ways to Solve Thanksgiving Struggles


Look at the glow…too good to be true?

Ahhh Thanksgiving.

That time of year when social media is filled with picture perfect seasonal crafts and articles talking about how to give thanks with your little ones.

Recipes display the “best-tasting turkey” and pictures show everyone at the family dinner table with angelic faces aglow.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Did we hear…a lack of reality?

How do things look in your house?  Very likely it’s different. Your children may be pulling your pants down as you try and baste turkey, and painting the walls with cranberry.

Then they’ll demand you play…

Then play with cousins they haven’t seen all month deteriorates into tantrums…

Then comes refusals to sit at the table. (And refusals to eat your awesomely-basted turkey!).

Gramps starts in, “In my day…” and Junior pokes out his tongue at her…or worse.

It’s enough to send any parent straight to the…sweets and desserts.

What’s right with this picture?

Welcome to normal.

Chances are at least one of these “adult-shocking acts” is bound to occur over the holiday season and that’s ok.

We are all doing our best, (even if Gramps doesn’t think so).

Still, there are things we can do to help things go smoother.

But First: Why Do Kids Lose It on the Holidays?

Do you ever feel the pressure of perfection? There’s nothing like a family visit to pile it on. Additional family members, the expectation that children should behave, immense excitement teamed with an environment that keeps parents busy and out of reach.

Guess what? Your child picks up on that energy too.

Our children’s brains are designed to connect and be in communication often. They are made to be seen. To interact. It makes them feels safe, secure, stable. And when they don’t feel that, they act up.

But it isn’t deliberate and it’s not intended to drive you crazy.

Simply, it’s brain science. When a child’s limbic brain feels that disconnection, the reasoning part of their brain goes into a tailspin and shuts down.

To many that looks like attention-grabbing behavior. At Hand in Hand, of course, you know it as connection-seeking. You may:

  • Hear whining
  • See battles between siblings
  • Watch as your child delves into a bowl of treats you already said they needed to wait for
  • Refuse to wash up, clean up, get dressed, or seemingly do anything you ask!
  • Storm off in a huff
  • Shout and scream
  • Tantrum
  • Hear your child begging to play, keep pulling at your hand, or asking for your attention – “Mom, look,” – or even sassy language.

Somewhere in all the nutty behavior is a child trying to say, “See me. Hear me. Get me.”

“See me. Hear me. Get me.”

That’s your key to a warmer, cozier, more connected thanksgiving.

Keeping Calm and Carrying On

Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be a series of endless meltdowns.

Using tools that build connection helps to keep things light-hearted and fun.

And when there is fun, good times and cooperation follow.

These tools allow your child to feel seen, heard and got!

Some of these tools can be used before the big day to build a blanket of comfort between parent and child. Others are more like emergency rescue tools, quick connection boosters, to be used as needed.

Here are five tried-and-trusted tools to see you through holiday meltdowns.

Five Ways To Solve Thanksgiving Struggles

1. Special Time Ahead of Company

You’ve been shopping, roasting, baking, cleaning. What’s missing here?

Playing with the kids.

And who can blame you?

But if your little one is nagging, whinging and playing up, they are telling you they need some one-on-one connection.

Either your child needs to laugh or cry to release the fearful feelings they have about losing you to turkey and planning!

The niggly behavior won’t truly go away until they get some time.

10 Minutes Can Turn Things Around

If you can spend 10 minutes of Special Time, where you follow your child’s lead in play.  You’ll boost their sense of good feeling and save yourself a lot of acting up later.

Your child will leave their play session with you feeling happier to hang out with Grampy, and  may even nibble a carrot at dinner.

Other times, you may want to Playlisten around the Thanksgiving theme: One mom we know turned bathtime into a fun “kid-basting” time, where she modelled basting the turkey on her child using a pipette and water.

2. Kids Fighting? Play Bad Vibes Away

One minute the kids are outside playing happily, the next one is in tears and everyone else is pointing fingers.

Somewhere in play, they’ve become disconnected.

The quickest way to reunite kids at odds is by pitching them against you. “Any kind of game of tipping, tripping, falling, spilling your food, or sitting innocently, then having children “bonk” you from behind with pillows, and being mystified as to who caused those bonks, are hilarious to kids from toddlerhood through preschool and beyond,” says Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, and author of the book Listen: Five Tools To Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges. 

When kids laugh, good feelings return. And when they band against you, they are united in a single cause so their own quarrels are forgotten.

Good games to try, Patty says, are Hide and Seek, where adults don’t see the children even when they are right in front of them, and chase games, where the adult is a victim always falling, slipping or sliding as the kids move out of reach.

This is peacekeeping play at its finest, so it actually pays for the parents to lose!

3. Why Are They So Loud?

When the kids are getting too loud for comfort, make their noise legitimate. They want to be listened to – so listen.

Have a “Who’s Loudest” Competition

If you have space (and mental capacity) have a “Who’s loudest?” competition, where you all yell. You can end up by taking it right down to “Who’s quietest?” where you all whisper.

Kathy Gordon, chief Parent Club moderator says to try talking without making any sounds. This simple game is guaranteed to get giggles going.

And that’s exactly what you are aiming for. “It’s seeing if you can get them giggling so that they can offload any tension or tightness that might be making them act so loud,” Kathy says.

Another idea is to “talk” silently, which lots of kids find hilarious. Ask them for directions that you can mime.

4. They Won’t Come To The Table – And They Definitely Won’t Eat…

Here comes the biggie: Family dinner.

Getting to the table, staying there and actually eating is a challenge in many houses – even on days when family members aren’t chiming in with thoughts and opinions.

Get ahead by warming up the good feelings before dinner is on the table.

Ahead of dinner, play with the kids, or assign a family member to play games the kids are playing (or join in with devices they are watching).

Since children often get busy by themselves as dinner prep takes over, this unexpected adult attention provides some warm connection.

Couple this, a few minutes in, with an expectation: “It’s almost time for dinner,” to warm them up for what’s to come.

When it is time, try offering playful encouragement. “Let’s race to the table, I bet I’ll win,” works well for some kids, and “Bet you can’t stop me getting to the table,” where they physically try and prevent you moving is great for others.

Make sure you set enough time to play and let them win so they get to the table feeling good.

Can’t Eat, Won’t Eat

If they won’t eat, or won’t stay at the table, try a bit more play. 

Instructor Skye Munro’s mock-threat works a treat: “No-one eat those potatoes. Those are MY potatoes.”

Or try to put food in your mouth but instead, ‘feed’ your ears, your armpits, the top of your head, your foot. Keep saying, ”Oh no! That’s not right, let me try again.”

Kids will dive into the “forbidden food” just to see your mock horror (For best results, act really displeased!).

*Discover why some kids have BIG feelings about food in our class “Food and Feelings,” a complete class that shows you how to use Hand in Hand Tools to overcome eating struggles and raise confident, happy eaters. You can get the class here

When Kids Are Melting Down, Take Them Away

If the event is too much pressure for your child, don’t be afraid to take them out of the situation. While you are sitting out, create a warm “time in.”

Offer quick Special Time, or try something you know will make them laugh. A simple game like, “The first one to smile loses…” while you try to make each other smile.

Patty Wipfler describes playing away the pressure of needing to be well-mannered. At a family event she attended where the kids were falling apart, “My son and I took a break in another room and had a bad manners contest,” she says.

“We burped, blew bad breath at each other, made farting noises, and just laughed and laughed.”

After some cousins joined the contest, they played for another 15 minutes before heading back to the table, where the reconnected children were able to sit and participate well.

5. They Don’t Want to Leave

Most of us have been here! your child refuses to budge or throws themselves down on the floor in a tantrum when it’s time to leave.

It might not feel like it, but they are telling you they had a great time.

Your child is saying, “We had such a good time together, this feels like a fine, safe time to let all my pent up feelings loose.”

Get Ready, Go!

Saying “We’re leaving soon,” before you actually need to can be useful.

If your child doesn’t want to, you’ll hear about it early, you’ll be able to laugh about it, give them a “win,” and offer a little extra time. That way, things feel more relaxed.

You can also act goofy about leaving to keep things warm and relaxed:

  • Attempt to leave but put your jacket on back to front.
  • Tie a scarf around your legs.
  • Exit through the wrong door, and get your child to help you find the right one.

Once you have them laughing,  you can scoop your child up, give them a nuzzle and whizz out the door.

Thanksgiving might be trying, exhausting and all-consuming, but it’s a holiday you deserve to enjoy.

If you are celebrating this week, we hope these connecting ideas help you have a good time. Let us know how they work out for you.


From the Hand in Hand Toolbox:

When kids take the lead in play we call it Playlistening. Find out how this simple tool is so powerful in What is Playlistening? 

Get more playful parenting tips in 15 Playful Ways To Solve Sibling Rivalry

Get your free Ultimate Guide to Sibling Rivalry here

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