As much as we may wax nostalgic about what the holidays were like for us growing up, being a parent during this time of the year isn’t exactly easy. There’s the nonstop sugar, the disruptions to your child’s schedule, the heightened anticipation about presents, and all the other overstimulating festivities.
“Kids thrive on routine,” said Jason Kahn, a child development expert and co-founder of the game Mightier.
Going from their predictable schedule of school, regular mealtimes, and steady bedtimes to the hectic nature of the holidays can be unsettling, even if they are excited about it. “It’s a lot of change for a kid,” Kahn said. “The line between that stimulation to a meltdown is razor thin.”
Prepare them ahead of time
To start, it helps to remember that our children are going through this for the first time; they’re not used to the hectic nature of the holidays the way we are. If you want to prevent meltdowns, you need to make sure they have some idea of what is coming—and how to handle it.
“The more you can preview the activities, the more you can set clear expectations, the more you can set structure, the better off your child is going to be,” Kahn said.
One way to do this is to talk your child through what they think will be happening, versus what will actually be happening, because their assumptions may not be accurate. This is also the time to clearly establish your expectations for them, whether it’s that they will be required to sit at the dinner table for the entire family meal or that they will wait their turn to open their presents.
Involve them in the planning process
Some of the holiday expectations may be hard for your child, whether it’s your shy child being asked to socialize with extended family, or your hyperactive child being asked to sit still for an extended period of time. When it comes to getting your child to do something that is hard for them, involving them in the planning process can help give them a sense of control. “It feels good to have some agency,” Kahn said.
Instead of simply giving your child an order that they have to do something they don’t like, talk it through with them ahead of time, and help them to come up with a plan that works for them. For example, if they have to sit still during an extended family meal, you could give them a choice of having a coloring book or a toy to help them get through it. If they are going to be asked to sit next to a family member they don’t know well, you can offer them some choices on topics to talk about, or ways they can respond to certain questions.
Expect them to melt down anyway
As much as you prepare your child for what is coming and help them come up with a plan for what to do, there is probably going to be at least one or two meltdowns anyway. When it does happens, remember that it’s normal. They—and probably you, too—are overstimulated and working through their emotions.
“The first thing you want to do is make [your] kid feel safe, so they can come back to a place where they are able to have a conversation with you,” Kahn said.