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Holiday Overwhelm: Tantrums and Challenging Behaviors

For most children the end of the year is usually a time of great excitement and joy, lots of gifts and treats, visits with extended family and family friends, lots of fun things to do, and unfortunately, more frequent tantrums and other challenging behaviors.

As parents we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make the holidays exciting, magical, and “perfect” for our children. We decorate the house, bake batches after batches of cookies, take them on never-ending outings and errands, bedtime gets pushed back on more nights than we can count. We end up feeling exhausted, stressed, overwhelmed, and short-tempered ourselves – it’s no wonder they also have a hard time regulating their emotions and controlling their behaviors.

When children feel tired or overwhelmed, they have a harder time managing their emotions and behaviors due to their underdeveloped brains. They may whine, complain, argue, and cry over the smallest of things. They can’t always let us know when they’re overwhelmed and need a break from all the hustle-bustle of the holidays because they aren’t aware of it until it’s too late. In order to help our children manage their emotions and behaviors, we need to be able to read their cues. Tantrums and other challenging behaviors serve to communicate a need or a struggle.

During those challenging times your child needs your help to be able to calm down. Get on your child’s level and communicate that you see that he’s sad/mad/tired – “I see you’re really upset that you couldn’t have another cookie” or “I hear you, you’re really mad that your brother broke your brand-new toy”. Then try taking some slow breaths together, giving him a long and tight hug or some back rubs, or simply being with him while he cries. Avoid countdowns, threats, punishments, and trying to rush the negative feelings along – these add more stress to an already stressed brain, making it harder for the child to calm down.

Here are some simple tips to help keep big feelings at bay this holiday season:

Less is more – try to avoid scheduling and doing too many things so that you can be fully present and able to enjoy the few, more meaningful things that you choose to do.

Take time to rest and connect with each other – set aside at least a few days this holiday season to stay in and watch movies together, play card or boardgames, make smores by the fire, or enjoy some hot cocoa while you look through old family pictures and videos.

Give yourself and your children more grace – Remember that children do well when they can. If they’re acting out or being extra challenging remember that it’s not personal! Take a minute to regulate yourself then get down on their level and try to understand what’s getting in their way. Stop and consider your child’s physical and emotional state – is he Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired? (HALT). If so, work with him to resolve the problem before addressing the challenging behavior. Remember that even as adults our mood and frustration tolerance is also strongly influenced by those things so consider your own physical and emotional state and take care of your needs as well.

Focus on family – create your own “way to holiday” as a family. Gather everyone and talk about all the things you actually want to do and the things that you can go without this holiday season. Create your own family traditions and give yourself permission to drop the things you’ve been doing that feel more like a chore and no longer bring joy to your family. Focus more on BEING present and find ways to enjoy the season in and more mindful and fulfilling way.

Wishing you and your children a more peaceful and enjoyable holiday season.

Barbara Johns, LPC - Associate

I believe that in order to heal, people need to have a safe space where they can explore what is contributing to their problems and how they can use their difficulties as fuel for personal growth in order to turn things around and live life the way they really want to. My goal is to provide you with that safe and supportive environment as well as with new tools and skills that you can take with you on your journey toward healing and growth.


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