Dealing with nightmarish tantrums during the holidays

Throwing a tantrum is one way for a little child to cope with sensory overload this season

Throwing a tantrum is one way for a little child to cope with sensory overload this season

The holidays are a time when some of the sweetest, warmest, and funniest family memories are made. Unfortunately, they’re also the occasion for scenes you wish you could forget—most of them starring your child: tantrums in the toy aisle, manners missing in action. But when you consider the frenzied way we celebrate the season, it’s easy to see why kids are prone to such outrageous behavior right now.

“Try to look at the holidays from your child’s point of view,” says Vicki Panaccione, PhD, a child psychologist in Melbourne, Florida. “There are lots of crowds, noise, flashing lights, music, presents, and strangers dressed as Santa ‘ho-ho’-ing at them everywhere they turn.” The sensory overload can easily overwhelm a little child—and throwing a tantrum is one of the few ways he has to cope with the stress.

So how can you deal with your child’s not-so-jolly behavior when you’re just as worn out by the holidays as he is? We asked experts to share their best advice for avoiding the most common tantrum triggers this season—backup plans included!

Scared of Santa
You’re convinced your child will be psyched to meet the jolly guy who brings her Christmas gifts—and you can’t wait to capture it on camera. But when the magical moment arrives, she sobs harder than she did at her flu shot.

Prevention pointers: Before you hit the line, let your kid watch other children sit on Santa’s lap and see how she reacts. Explain that you’re going to put her on Santa’s lap so she can tell him what she wants—and that you’ll be back as soon as you take a picture.

Fast fix: Bail on the photo if your kid is truly hysterical. It’s not unusual for children to freak out when they meet Santa, and you can’t really blame them. If you’re dead set on getting that Santa pic—and your child is just a little teary—snap away and don’t feel disappointed. It may end up being one of your favorite photos!

Fear of relatives
When it’s time to greet everyone at the family get-together, your child tries to hide in fear or is as stone-faced as a Secret Service agent.

Prevention pointers: Kids often feel intimidated by groups of people they don’t see regularly, so run through the guest list with your child before the party. Show him pictures of relatives he might not remember, so they won’t seem like strangers. Then, rehearse polite intros. When the big day arrives, try to introduce your child to one relative at a time so he won’t get swallowed up or intimidated in a huge group.

Fast fix: Explain to the snubbed relative that your child tends to be shy around people he doesn’t see a lot. Say, “I’m sure he’ll warm up later and will want to play with you—it’s how he is.”

The ‘gimmes’
Your child usually begs you to buy her stuff when you go shopping, but now that the holiday season is here, her cries of “I want that!” have officially become a mantra.

Prevention pointers: Before you set foot in the store, explain why you’re going there and give her a task to get her mind off toys. One example is to tell your child you are looking for a present for grandma. If your kid asks if you can stop by the toy store too, remind her that today’s shopping trip is all about grandma, and Legos is just not for her.

Fast fix: End the pleas by acknowledging her request without making any promises, saying to put in her wish list, and maybe will get it from Aunt Emily on her birthday. Just knowing that she might get the toy someday will help your child calm down

Mall meltdowns
Your kid has never loved going shopping, and now that you’ve got a million gifts to buy, he’s whinier than ever.

Prevention pointers: Plan to hit the stores when your child is well-rested and well-fed, and bring toys and books to keep him entertained. Make sure you talk to him, since he’s more likely to get cranky if he feels ignored. And prepare to be extra vigilant – when kids are bored they’re more likely to wander off the moment they spot something that interests them, like the mall’s huge holiday decorations.

Fast fix: When the crying starts, get some fresh air or take a rest in the food court for a few minutes.

Ungrateful for gifts
Your child tears through the presents her relatives give her, tossing them aside or yelling, “I didn’t want this!”

Prevention pointers: Tell your child ahead of time that she doesn’t have to love every gift – but she should always say thank you. You might say, “It’s okay to like some presents more than others. But it’s still nice of everyone to give you something, so you should be nice too and thank them.”

Fast fix: Try to grin and bear what appears to be your child’s lack of tact. After all, most people understand that kids can be quite tactless. Prompt your child to say thank you, but don’t push it if she won’t. You can always smooth things over by apologizing to your relative later and thanking her for the nice gift.

Remember, Christmas was not meant to be perfect. It’s about counting our blessings, spending time with family and making the best of the season. And it’s the meltdowns, the tantrums,and all the in-between things that can go wrong that will always make Christmas perfectly imperfect and forever memorable. There are still a few more days left of the holidays, so keep calm, and Merry On! Happy Holidays!

This article is an abridged version of an article by Suzanne Schlosberg, and which appeared in the December 2008 issue of Parents Magazine.


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