It can be the most wonderful time of the year! It can also be a stressful time for parents who worry about how their child will behave at events with family and friends. The hustle and bustle of the season, changes to daily routines, parties, and gifts can contribute to parent-child conflict and meltdowns. The following tips will help you prevent problems and keep the season festive for all.
Anticipate potential problems
Different aspects of the season will be challenging for different children. Take a few minutes to think what parts may be hard for your child. For instance, will your child have trouble playing nicely with the children of relatives and family friends? Do you worry that your child may have tantrums or show disrespect if disappointed about a gift, or test the limits and try to get away with more than what is allowed at home? Problems during holiday travel are also common.
Set up for success
—Playing nicely with others: If your child tends to have trouble playing with others during less structured times, consider planning activities for an event you are hosting, such as cookie decorating, holiday coloring projects, holiday movies, and other games. Try to limit less-structured times if possible. If you are visiting instead of hosting, see if you can bring some activities for all of the children or ones your child can do independently such as stories, paper snowflakes, and coloring books.
—Avoiding meltdowns over gifts: Talk to your child in advance about the reason behind gift giving and the need to be polite to everyone who gives them a gift. Let them know it’s okay to be disappointed, but they still need to show respect. Get them involved in the giving process by picking out gifts for family and friends or donating toys for children less fortunate. Role play situations that may come up, like getting a hand knit sweater instead of that new video game they’ve been wanting.
—Travel tips: If your plans include a lot of travel, consider scheduling it during your child’s nap or at night so they can sleep. You can also bring snacks and toys, sing holiday songs, play games like 20 Questions, and consider using electronics, especially if you have a long flight or drive.
—Testing limits: Decide if it’s realistic and appropriate to use any punishment strategies. Knowing in advance if you will take away privileges or use a timeout will help you avoid making threats that only serve to frustrate you and your child when you cannot follow through.
—Scheduling: For any child who struggles to manage their behavior and emotions, longer days and events will test their resources to keep it together. Consider shortening visits and even saying no to some invites if the day is going to be too action-packed. It’s better to have shorter, more pleasant get-togethers than one that ends in an epic meltdown. If shortening a visit is not an option, see if there is a quieter place in the home for your child to take a couple breaks.
—Have a “worst case scenario” plan: This could be pulling your child aside for a break, having them stay with you if they are having trouble getting along with other children, or even leaving early if you are visiting. Make sure that you are comfortable following through with anything on the plan. Knowing the specific plan will help you feel most prepared.
Review expectations ahead of time
Based on the anticipated problems, let your child know exactly what you expect during holiday visits. Avoid vague expectations such as “Behave” and instead state clearly what behavior you want to see, like “Listen to me,” or “Share toys with other children.” Try to use positive language. Tell your child, “Say thank you for gifts even if it’s not what you were hoping for,” instead of “Don’t be rude.” Choose your battles carefully to focus on the most important goals–which can mean letting go of some limits you normally place. For example, it may not be critical to limit your child to one treat, especially if other children will likely have more and it will be hard for you to fully monitor while spending time with relatives.
Instead of waiting for the end of a party, try giving frequent spontaneous feedback when you see your child following set expectations to build positive momentum. Make statements such as, “I’m so proud of you for playing nicely,” or “You did a great job being polite to thank grandma for the mittens and hat.” If you start noticing problems, stay as calm as possible (which will help your child stay calm) and use your “worst case scenario” plan. You may feel like other friends and relatives are judging your parenting. Try to remember that every parent has dealt with outbursts and problematic behavior at one point or another; some may just have trouble remembering or feel like they have to share their behavior management tip at an inopportune time.
Stephanie Wagner, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. She specializes in behavioral treatments for sleep as well as providing psychosocial interventions, including parent training, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), and school consultation to parents and teachers of children with ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders. She is also the co-director of Early Childhood Service at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center.