Why is it that your little one, all dressed in their festive outfit at the family holiday party, is having an absolute nuclear meltdown out of nowhere? If you notice your kid throws tantrums, breaks down crying, or acts out more around the holidays, just know parents everywhere are also wondering why the heck this happens.
Why Does My Kid Have More Tantrums During The Holidays?
There are plenty of reasons why your kid might get overwhelmed — and act it out in a big way — during the holiday season. What seems to you like a month filled with fun events and activities can feel more like a holiday gauntlet to your child.
“Younger children are easily affected by even slight changes in routine, and all kids pick up on increased stress and strong emotions their parents or caregivers may be exhibiting,” says Melissa Buchholz, PsyD, pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, in an interview with Romper. “This time of year is often packed full of extra activities. While these things can be fun and exciting, they can also cause breaks in routine, disrupt predictability, and increase dysregulation — or meltdowns.”
To top it off, a lot of holiday activities are brand new tasks for young children. Imagine being so excited to meet Santa Claus and then being told to wait in line, or going to a family member’s house you don’t see much and having to sit quietly at the table when all you really want is to inspect all the ornaments on their tree. It can be… kind of a lot.
“The holidays often lead to high expectations of behavior: sit still, don’t touch, play nicely, use your manners, wait, wait, and wait some more,” says Rachel Robertson, child development expert and VP of Learning & Development at Bright Horizons. “Young children are just learning to regulate emotions and behaviors. This is truly an emerging skill that takes years, even decades, to master, so expecting a 3-year-old to do it perfectly for multiple days is a set-up. This is a real mismatch of expectations to developmental abilities.”
How Can You Prevent Holiday Meltdowns?
If you want to set your child up for success, you need to meet them where they are developmentally and try to make sure the days aren’t too hectic. These are Robertson’s tips for reducing, and hopefully preventing, those big Christmas tantrums:
- Look at changes to routine, especially meal times, nutrition, and sleep. Make the day more predictable and preserve all the parts of the routine you can.
- Limit the number of behavioral expectations you ask for in one day. Things that require self-control are very hard for young children, so if you ask for many of them, it’s a recipe for an outburst. Teach children self and emotional regulation skills before expecting them to use them.
- Avoid any bribing. This rarely turns out well and only teaches a child to behave for a prize versus learning how to manage emotions and behaviors.
- Take notes. Usually there is a pattern to behaviors and sometimes subtle enough we miss it without recording it. Is it happening before a meal, after a long wait, late at night, or during peer interactions?
- Practice calming activities. Story time, sensory activities like clay or coloring, or mindfulness activities can work well.
“It can be very helpful to prep children for what they can expect when something is out of routine,” says Buchholz. “Practicing strategies like deep breathing, finding a quiet space, and squeezing a favorite stuffed animal or blanket before the gathering can be really helpful in preparing children and giving them the strategies they need to stay calm during an event that may feel stressful to them.”
How To Stop A Tantrum In The Moment
For starters, Robertson says parents would do well to remember that kids don’t want to have meltdowns. They don’t enjoy it any more than the rest of us.
“Children only have a few tools available to understand how they feel and express those feelings, let alone express them in a way that adults would say is appropriate. The first thing to do when their behavior is challenging is to remember that they don’t like what is happening to them either,” she says.
Buchholz believes the best way to help your kiddo reset is to take them somewhere quiet, stay close, and show them how to calm down.
“If you are at a gathering when a meltdown happens, it’s ideal to calmly remove the child to a space where they can be out of the spotlight. You can practice time in, which is a bit like time out, but the parent actually co-regulates with the child,” she explains. “This could look like holding the child and taking audible deep breaths so that the child can hear and feel the parent breathing slowly and intentionally. There should not be a lot of conversation or attention paid — the goal is to stay calm so your child can calm down with you. You can say, ‘Mommy needs to calm down too,’ and then breathe in and out slowly and audibly. Alternatively, you can name the child’s feelings: ‘I can see that you are very upset and you need some time to calm down.’ Then take the child to a quiet, separate space and let them know that you will wait while they calm down.”
Melissa Buchholz, PsyD, pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado and an associate professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine
Rachel Robertson, child development expert and VP of Learning & Development at Bright Horizons