Nightmares Before Christmas: Avoiding Holiday Tantrums

If your child goes from nice to naughty the minute you hang the wreath, use our genius anti-tantrum tricks to keep the peace.

Why Meltdowns Happen Now

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, sobfests in Santa's lap, 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 kid -- 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. "Don't waste time waiting for a photo if she looks panicked," says Peter Stavinoha, PhD, a child neuropsychologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas. If your child seems interested, introduce her to Santa when it's her turn ("Sara, this is Santa. He delivers a special present to you on Christmas"). 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. "What other time of year would you say, 'Why don't you sit on the lap of that large, bearded man we don't know?'" says Marlene Belew Huff, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. 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. For example: "Here's your cousin Jim. When we see him, I want you to shake his hand and say hi. Let's pretend I'm Jim, and you can practice it now." 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."

Next: The Gimmes

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, says Dr. Panaccione. For example: "I'm so glad you're coming with me because I need your help. I'm looking for a present for Grandma -- what do you think we should get her?" If your kid asks if you can stop by the toy store too, jokingly remind her that today's shopping trip is all about Grandma ("I don't think Grandma wants a tricycle or Legos for Christmas, do you?").

Fast fix: End the pleas by acknowledging her request without making any promises, says Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say. Try: "That would be really cool, wouldn't it? Let's put it on your wish list, and maybe you'll get it from Santa, or from Aunt Emily for your birthday." Just knowing that she might get the toy someday will help your child calm down. Try not to get annoyed or lecture her about greediness. "Don't treat this like a discipline issue," says Braun. "It's perfectly normal and natural for children to want things." And that's especially true now -- what kid can tune out all those holiday toy ads?

Mall Meltdowns

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

Prevention pointers: You know the drill. 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 don't get so focused on your shopping list that you barely 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. "Have a snack or sing a song, and give yourselves some time to regroup," says Dr. Panaccione. But if your kid is truly unhappy, head home.

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, says Dr. Panaccione. 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 your child's disses -- most people understand that kids aren't known for their tact. Prompt your child to say thank you ("What do you say to Aunt Barbara?"), but don't push it if she won't. "We tell kids they should never lie, so a situation like this confuses them," says Dr. Huff. "They don't understand the subtle difference between telling the truth and telling a white lie to spare someone's feelings." You can always smooth things over by apologizing to your relative later and thanking her for the nice gift.

Dining Disasters

You've slaved over an awesome Food Network-worthy holiday spread for all your relatives, yet your little food critic pronounces it gross or decides he'd rather play with his mashed potatoes than eat them.

Prevention pointers: First, remind yourself that no kid will sit quietly during a long family dinner. He's not being rude -- he's just not developmentally able to handle it yet. So don't aim too high; just go over a few basic table manners you want your child to follow (no throwing food or eating with his hands, for example), and serve at least one dish he recognizes -- and will eat. And don't force him to stay at the table for the entire meal. Many toddlers can sit still for 15 to 20 minutes; preschoolers may last 30 minutes. Set a timer before you eat so your child will know he can ask to be excused when the bell rings.

Fast fix: If your child refuses to cooperate, and you feel the critical glare of your relatives, remove him from the table and remind him how he should behave in private. Then try to laugh it off, says Braun. You might say, "It's been a long time since you've had the pleasure of dining with a 3-year-old, hasn't it?" Or explain that your child is simply too excited to remember all of his manners today. Hey, it's probably the truth!

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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