Holiday Behavior Problems -- and How to Avoid Them

How to keep little kids from melting down for the holidays.

Say No to Stress

The holidays can -- and should -- be a special time for you and your baby or toddler. In fact, participating in annual traditions can be good for a child's development. We see the fact that holidays are important to children in their pretend play for months afterward, says Marilyn Segal, PhD, a professor of child development at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale and the author of Your Child at Play series (Newmarket Press). The holidays also give kids a way of marking the year and help anchor them in time and space, adds Dr. Segal.

But while the holidays have the potential to be a positive experience for young children, they can also be a source of stress. Taking toddlers and preschoolers out of their familiar routine and surrounding them with people they don't know may result in behavior that's worse than usual just when you want to show your child off. Still, there's a lot you can do to disaster-proof your holidays. Knowing what to expect and planning accordingly is the first step. Here are five of the biggest holiday hot spots and the best ways to handle them.

Going to Grandma's

Whether you're visiting relatives or hosting the festivities, the best advice is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Traveling, visitors, and an overload of sugar pretty much set up our kids to fail at the holidays, says Breena Holmes, MD, a pediatrician in Middlebury, Vermont. Couple that with asking children to act more mature than they are capable of and you can see the meltdowns coming from a mile away.

Here's what you can do:

  • Help your child become familiar with the people she'll be meeting. Show her pictures of her relatives, and if you're the ones visiting, a picture of the house where you'll be staying, if possible.
  • Do some damage control on behalf of your child. Ask your friends or relatives to move vases, knickknacks, and plants so your child doesn't damage them.
  • Stick to routines as much as possible. Feed your child at regular times, even if the family will be sitting down for a big meal in the middle of the afternoon. Take along bedtime books and a favorite blankie and adhere to a normal nap and bedtime routine. That way, at least, you won't start the day with a tired, cranky child.
  • Stay consistent with your rules. Consistency is the key when it comes to discipline. Parents often change their discipline style in front of relatives -- some become overly strict, while others let everything slide. Both methods, says Dr. Holmes, are confusing to a toddler. It's okay to allow some latitude (perhaps you'll allow more videos to keep her entertained during adult-oriented events, or let her eat candy that aunts and uncles offer as a special treat), but don't let all the rules you've established fly out the window. If your toddler starts to act up or behaves in an unacceptable manner, respond as you would normally do. If you've begun using time-outs at home, find a suitable place to let her serve her time, such as on the stairs or in a room she's familiar with. Or you may want to say you'll stay with her until she's ready to behave.
  • Don't force her to hug, kiss, or be held. If your child is shy with relatives, don't push her to hug or kiss people she doesn't know well. Find gentle, less threatening ways for them to interact. Dr Segal suggests they read a book together or have the relative hold a toy and wait for your baby to take interest in it. In time, your child will warm up.

Mealtime Madness

Candles, china, goblets, white tablecloths, fancy food, noisy revelers -- with so many new sights, sounds, and smells, it's no wonder your toddler may prefer to crawl under the table instead of sit at it! Here's what you can do:

  • Plan ahead. Call before you go to your relative's house and find out the menu. See if it's okay to bring your own staples if there won't be foods your toddler likes.
  • Avoid food battles. Remind relatives (and yourself) that with all the excitement going on around her, your child might not have much of an appetite. And while you may think potato latkes are a slice of heaven, your toddler might not be ready to try them -- especially in an unfamiliar atmosphere. Put tiny bits of new food on her plate along with familiar favorites and let her take the lead.
  • Don't force your child to sit at the table indefinitely. Now's not the time to make your child stay in one place for an unlimited period of time. Dr. Segal points out that everyone looks so big to your baby and he probably feels smothered. There are all kinds of conversations going on, but they're probably just boring noise to your little one. When your child has had enough, let her leave the table. If you're lucky, there will be a nurturing older child willing to keep your child busy, or other kids to play with. If not, let him watch a video or set him up with other quiet activities.

Next: Gift Grabbing

Gift Grabbing

Mine! Mine! They're all mine! That's what's going through your toddler's head when he sees any gifts. Here's what you can do:

  • Understand your child's developmental limits. A 1- or 2-year-old will see a gift and assume it's his. No matter how much you explain that it's for someone else, a toddler won't grasp the concept.
  • Let your toddler open a present or two early. If you go to someone's house and there are a bunch of presents sitting under a tree, your toddler is going to want to rip into them. If any of them are for your child, consider asking your host if your child can open a few instead of waiting.
  • Don't expect your toddler to function with gift-receiving etiquette. Prepare yourself -- and other adults -- for the fact that your toddler is unlikely to graciously unwrap each gift, pausing to give heartfelt thanks to the giver. That said, you can try to manage the scene (or is it contain the mayhem?) to a degree. It may help to practice the art of appreciation ahead of time. Dr. Holmes suggests that you should start to teach your child at the age of 3 how to acknowledge a gift by saying "thank you."

Holiday Services

Before heading off to the big holiday service, ask yourself: Why are you doing this? If it's something that you want to peacefully savor and enjoy, taking small children may be a mistake. The only thing a very young child will probably take away from it is that she had to be quiet, says Dr. Holmes. Here's what you can do:

  • Consider finding a sitter, letting your partner stay home with the baby, or asking if there's a nursery on site. Unless it's extremely important to you that you go to the service as a family, you should probably leave the baby home.
  • Plan ahead. If you decide to take your baby along, pick your service carefully and prepare for the worst. Young children can't be expected to sit still for more than a few minutes with nothing to do. Take some snacks that can be eaten discreetly, quiet toys, and books to keep them occupied.
  • Be prepared to leave. Choose a seat that allows for an easy exit and don't feel embarrassed if your child is making so much noise that you feel the need to go.
  • Keep comfort in mind. Lacy tights and bow ties look cute, but they may feel itchy and restrictive to your little one. And beware of shiny new shoes. Break them in well before the big event. To get your child to actually wear the outfit you've picked, give her two choices -- your selection and the one she hates. (Nobody said parenting has to be fair!)

Lights, Cookies, and Santa

You've rolled your own cookie dough, got your popcorn ready for stringing, and selected a picture frame for the 8x10 of Junior sitting on Santa's lap. Guess what? Junior wants to poke holes in the dough and eat the popcorn (which is a choking hazard!), and that weird-looking fat guy in the red suit gives him the willies. Here's what you can do:

  • Avoid overpressuring or overstimulating your baby. It's not wrong to want to create memories or expose your child to new experiences. But if you want the holidays to be happy and pleasant for your child -- and who doesn't? -- don't make demands he can't meet, says Dr. Holmes.
  • Find ways for your child to participate in traditions. If you love baking Christmas cookies, let him shake on the sprinkles after you've rolled and cut the dough; if you want your child to appreciate the menorah, let him put in the candles after you've polished it. Want him to experience holiday lights? Go for an evening stroll through your neighborhood instead of going to the jam-packed mall.
  • Don't force Santa on your child. It might be best to hold off on Santa until your child is 3 or 4. Even then, some kids still find him frightening. Santa can be a very scary thing to a toddler, warns Dr. Segal. If a child wants to sit on his lap, by all means try. But as soon as she seems worried, let her know it's okay to change her mind.
  • Keep your holiday goals in perspective. Don't let your notion of the "perfect" holiday season create an unpleasant scene for your baby or toddler. The best way to achieve success is to set the stage for good behavior. Relax, lower your expectations, plan ahead, adhere to routines, and, most of all, keep your sense of humor.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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