Deck the halls without a tantrum: Help your children survive the holidays

By Rita Buettner

Flickr Creative Commons / Mish Bradley

Children love Santa and presents and flying reindeer and lots of activity and excitement and stimulation. But sleigh bells and piles of wrapping paper can also trigger trepidation and tantrums. Parents can be blindsided to realize that instead of a picture-perfect holiday, they are struggling with challenging behavior from their children.

There are ways to avoid that, however, and make the holiday season more enjoyable for the family.

La Keita Carter, Psy.D., director of the psychology division for the Loyola Clinical Centers, offers some tips for parents to help their children navigate the holidays.

1. Know your child. Realize that each child is unique, with different needs and reactions. “Your two children are different people, just like you and your sister are different people,” Carter says.

2. Give your children structure. With the holiday break from school and changes in activities, try to keep your child’s day as structured as possible. You want to create less confusion for your child.

3. Make a new family tradition. Plan a family activity for after Christmas—tickets to a children’s concert, bowling, or ice skating—to give everyone something to anticipate later. “Figure out something that you can all do as a family and do it, so there is something for your children to look forward to after that day, Christmas or whatever you’re celebrating around that time.”

4. Create traditions in the home. Invite the children to make cards or gifts for everyone in the family, or bake cookies or compile a family scrapbook together.

5. Organize family activities and play dates to give structure to each day. “Buy a 3-D puzzle or an erector set and work on it together,” Carter says. “Try to find something that you can structure your time around, even if it’s one thing a day so they have something to look forward to.”

6. Ask your children what they want to do. “Kids need some control. When it comes to kids, give them as much control as they can handle,” Carter says.

7. Make sure your children get their rest. Keep young children on their napping and bedtime schedule. Let older children know that postponing bedtime during the break is contingent upon good behavior. As older children prepare to go back to school, talk with them in advance about getting back to their normal bedtime.

8. Keep your ego out of Christmas. Think about what your child would really appreciate as a gift—and then think about whether they want the toy or whether you want them to have it. “You shouldn’t buy toys to prove that you can buy your kids the most amazing toys ever. The toys we spend the most money on are sitting in the corner.”

9. Spend 15-30 minutes of uninterrupted time with your child every day, whether drawing, watching TV, or reading to them. “A lot of times when parents do that, they realize ‘My kid’s no longer bugging me throughout the night.’ When that time is over, they go on and do other things.” This is good practice all the time, Carter says, not just during the holidays.

10. Try to keep your child from being overwhelmed. Last Christmas Carter was so excited for her 3-year-old to open gifts. “I was bubbling over, waiting for him to see this tree. He woke up on Christmas morning, ran down and saw the tree, and hid his face. I thought he would dive in headfirst,” she says. Instead he seemed to be overwhelmed by all of the stimulation. To reduce his feeling of being overwhelmed, she put most of the toys away and brought them to him to open one at a time. Some of them never came out of the closet on Christmas day, but later on throughout the year.

11. Plant a seed about giving back to others, but don’t expect your child to understand. “You can say you got all these toys for Christmas, pick out three of your old toys so they can be given away to make space,” Carter says. “But mentally speaking, children approach everything from a egocentric perspective until about 7 years old when that starts to shift.”

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