As the holidays approach, do you daydream about the glow of Christmas lights and sipping hot cocoa in front of a cozy fire, or do you dread your kids’ inevitable sibling conflicts and cries of “STOP IT!” and “HE STARTED IT!!!”?
All kids have occasional emotional outbursts, and a change in routines, being cooped up in the house, and the excitement of holiday events increase the likelihood that issues will arise. Understanding and applying the following strategies can mean the difference between a holiday season that is “merry and bright” and one full of miserable meltdowns.
When misbehaviours occur, ask yourself “why?”
Despite our best efforts, we can never meet our children’s needs 100% of the time, and they will sometimes use negative approaches to get the attention and engagement they crave. This is where tantrums and meltdowns can occur. The behaviour we see as a problem might be seen by our children as a solution to their problem. How we respond to our child’s outburst is key in determining whether or not they will repeat the behaviour in the future. Trying to understand what our child needs from us in the moment and effectively meeting those needs will not only help avoid the blow-ups, but also model healthy problem-solving.
Connect before correct
When our kids misbehave, our first instinct is usually to say “no” and correct their behaviour, and we may resort to threats when our feelings of frustration and helplessness boil over (“Stop hitting your sister, or else …!”). Although it is important to set limits for our children, these strategies rarely work and sometimes backfire, “turning up the volume” on your child’s meltdown. In fact, showing anger or frustration can reinforce the misbehaviour, because even negative attention may be preferable to feeling ignored.
A more helpful approach is to stop whatever you’re doing and really listen to what’s bothering your child. Then, repeat back both the content and the feelings they have expressed (e.g., “I can see how sad you are that we have to leave”). When we are feeling extremely upset, the right brain, which processes emotion, becomes activated and interferes with our left brain’s ability to think logically.
This is why we find it hard to reason with our child when they are having a tantrum. We can help soothe the emotion centres of their brains by naming the feeling(s) they are experiencing, helping them re-tell what happened so they can make sense of it, and validating their feelings (“You’re angry that your brother took your Lego — I would be upset too if someone took something without asking!”). This helps children learn to use both sides of their brain simultaneously so they can self-soothe and control their behaviour instead of reacting to every emotion they experience.
Once your child is calmer, you can help them explore alternative solutions to their problems, instead of relying on outbursts. Ask them if they can think of other ways to handle the situation, rather than simply telling them what they should or should not do. When possible, give them choice in how to resolve the issue, as they are much more likely to repeat the cooperative behaviour if they helped make the decision.
An ounce of prevention…
The above strategies help deal with your child during or after a blow-up. However, three effective ways to prevent meltdowns from happening in the first place are to
- avoid common triggers when possible (e.g., consider doing grocery shopping when the kids are at school/daycare),
- anticipate when you will be too busy or distracted to fully engage with your kids and proactively “fill their love tanks” by giving them a few minutes of your undivided attention beforehand, and
- pick your battles (e.g., if your kids are enjoying a harmless pillow fight, consider letting it go) to minimize whining, sulking and tantrums.
The above strategies should help limit the frequency and intensity of your kids’ tantrums over the holiday season. Remember that it may take some time for these methods to work, and it is essential that you be consistent if you want to reap the benefits and make the holidays more enjoyable for everyone!
Dr. Chris Parrish
Dr. Barbara Morrongiello
The Whole-Brain Child. Siegel & Payne-Bryson (2011).
Honey I wrecked the kids. Schafer (2009).