The holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy and magic, right? But when you have young children, the holidays can feel anything but. In fact, they often feel exhausting and overwhelming. Not only are you trying to create a whole bunch of Christmas magic for your children; planning gifts, making food, going to parties, moving that blasted Elf – you are also trying to manage all the big feelings that often come up at this time of year. And there can be A LOT of big feelings during the holidays.
Because children tend to have more meltdowns during the holiday season. After all, the holidays are full of out-of-the-ordinary, new, and exciting experiences. But your child’s brain – ALL brains – like predictability. They like routines. And sameness. And knowing what to expect. The very opposite of out of the ordinary, new and exciting!
There is just so much more for your child and their developing brain to cope with at this time of year – more people, more activities and events, more smells, sounds, sights, and tastes. More expectations. More events where they need to be on their best behaviour. And so of course, there are bound to be some BIG feelings as well.
Why is my child melting down?
Holiday meltdowns can happen for all sorts of reasons. Maybe your child is anxious about being around family they haven’t seen in a while. Maybe your child is afraid of Santa. Maybe your child is struggling to meet behavioural expectations and all of that stress has built up until they couldn’t hold it in any longer. Maybe your child really doesn’t do well with change or being out of routine. Maybe they had a few late nights in a row and are super tired. Maybe they’re disappointed by the gift they received. Maybe this Christmas party or event wasn’t quite what they expected it to be.
There are so many reasons a meltdown can happen at this time of year. And ALL of these reasons are completely valid reasons for your child to be experiencing big feelings. After all, your child’s brain is still under construction and they have a limited amount of resources available to deal with stress. Once they reach their capacity, they simply cannot hold those big emotions in any longer. And then you see a meltdown.
Meltdowns are stress behaviour, not misbehaviour
It is really important to remember that holiday meltdowns are not intentional misbehaviour. No meltdown is. A meltdown is simply stress behaviour.
And everyone experiences stress. In fact, stress is necessary and helpful in small amounts. Dealing with small, manageable amounts of stress, with support from a safe and loving adult, is what helps children develop resilience and a belief in their own capabilities.
But if your child is experiencing meltdowns, this is a sign that the stress they are under is bigger than their capacity to manage it. Their stress load is too high, and they need some help to reduce some of their stress and return to calm.
When we focus on reducing the stressors we have control over, we free up some resources for our children so that when stressors pop up that are outside of our control, they are better able to cope with them. So our goal, if we want to prevent those exhausting holiday meltdowns, is to focus on reducing the stressors we do have some control over.
We can do that by creating a degree of predictability during the holidays and by preparing our children for what’s to come before it happens. I like to use a simple 4 step process.
4 Steps to reduce your child’s stress and prevent ANY KIND of meltdown:
The first thing we can do is prepare everything we need in advance before we take our child into a situation that may be stressful for them. Get any clothes ready that you might need. Make sure you have things like hats, drink bottles, and snacks. Going somewhere and not sure if there’ll be something for your picky eater to enjoy? Pack some food! Going to the school Christmas concert and your kiddo needs a costume? Don’t wait until the hour before you leave to dig it out of storage!
Preparing everything well in advance saves everyone stress and means you are not rushing around right before you head out the door, frantically searching for things, barking orders at people, or panicking about being late. If you are stressed, your child will also be stressed. And if you are both stressed before you even arrive, then your child’s capacity to cope with the situation is already diminished before things even get started! So to avoid taking an already elevated child into a tricky situation, prepare as much as you can well in advance. This will help your child feel calm and confident from the outset.
The next step is to plan ahead, and communicate that plan clearly to your child. Brains thrive on predictability. They do not like unexpected surprises. So make a plan, and then let your child know exactly what that plan is. Walk them through, step by step, what will happen, using language they can understand. Talk about where you’ll be going, who will be there, and what you’ll be doing. Yes, even if you’re staying in your own home. Especially if you’re staying in your own home – children need to know what to expect and who will be coming into their personal space.
When you are explaining the plan to your child, try to give them reference points that make sense to them! Telling your 4-year-old that grandma has to leave at 8pm is not very helpful if your child cannot tell time. Instead, you can use dinner as your reference point to help your child understand when and in what order things will happen. This might sound like, “After we eat dinner, grandma needs to go home. She will say goodbye and then we will walk her to her car. We can stand on the footpath and wave to her until we can’t see her car anymore.”
Is your child going into an unfamiliar situation? Doing something they’ve never done before, or that you’re not sure they will cope well with? Use playtime to practice at home first. Give your child a chance to make mistakes in a safe environment where the stakes are low. Need to practice saying thank you for gifts that they may not like? Practice unwrapping gifts and responding! Does your child struggle to play with other children? Practice asking to be invited into play – role plays with mum or dad are great for this! Does your child feel anxious when people they don’t know well speak to them? Practice conversation skills at home first! Nervous about that school concert? Have them practice in front of you! Not sure how well they’ll handle wearing that itchy costume? Practice wearing it at home until it feels more comfortable.
It’s hard to do something new for the first time when you’re already feeling nervous or stressed. So take away those first-time nerves by practicing so much at home that it feels like second nature once it happens for real! This reduces your child’s stress load a little and means they have more energy available when the real event arrives.
And lastly, think about how you can promote your child to a position of power. How can you give them more age-appropriate control over what is happening? All humans have a need for control and autonomy. When we feel our autonomy is being limited or we have very little control in a situation – it increases our stress. So look for ways to help your child feel in control or to feel that they have a degree of autonomy within the situation. This might mean letting them choose what to wear or what food to put on their plate, allowing them to say no to kisses and cuddles from relatives, giving them a special job, like handing out the gifts or allowing them to opt-out of certain aspects of an activity that may be difficult or overwhelming for them.
Now, preparing in advance will certainly not prevent ALL meltdowns this holiday season. After all, meltdowns are a normal and expected part of development. They also say nothing about your skills as a parent. Even we adults still have the occasional meltdown when things feel overwhelming, right?! So let’s not hold our children to a higher standard than we hold ourselves!
However, prepping your little one in advance can go a long way towards reducing their stress and helping you have a calmer, more peaceful holiday season, with fewer tantrums and meltdowns and more joy, connection and fun! So prep away and have a fabulous Christmas!
Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in children and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modeled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.