Holiday Fears

Family celebrations might be fun for big kids, but seasonal chaos can be flat-out scary for toddlers. Try these soothing strategies.
Shannon Greer

You trimmed the tree and decked the halls, the living room, and the kitchen. Suddenly your house is beginning to look a lot like Christmas--and less like the familiar place your toddler knows as home. Sprinkle in a few holiday soirees and a trip to see your in-laws, and the season of peace, love, and joy can quickly become an overwhelming time for young children who don't yet understand holiday traditions (or why their routine is being flipped upside down). But there's no need to cancel Christmas for the sake of your tot. Read on to learn how to keep the happy in your holidays this year.

Scary Situation: Meeting Santa at the Mall

"To a toddler, the way someone looks is more important than how he acts," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child A Head Start in the First 3 Years. Santa might seem jolly in books, but all that goes down the chimney when you sit your toddler on his lap. He's dressed funny, has a big white beard, and loudly proclaims, "Ho, Ho, Ho!" Plus, he's a complete stranger. The mall can also be filled with crowds, noise, and other unsettling sensory experiences. And if your toddler can't see you, she may experience separation anxiety.

How to Help "Toddlers love predictability more than surprises," says Jayne Singer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital Boston. "If you know you are planning a visit to see Santa, involve your child in the plan." Explain who Santa Claus is and how he looks, then show her pictures and books beforehand. While you're waiting in line at the mall, point Santa out as soon as he's within sight--and remind your child what will happen at picture time. If she's still not comfortable when it's her turn, try holding her while you talk to Santa; let her see and feel how relaxed you are. If she agrees to sit on his lap, be sure to stay within arm's reach and ask the photographer to take the photo quickly in case she won't sit still for long. No matter how badly you want to get the photo, keep in mind that some kids just may not be at ease with it. "You have to ask yourself what's more important, your child's sense of security or getting the picture," says Dr. Singer. The bottom line: There's always next year.

Scary Situation: Being Introduced to Relative Strangers

Holiday get-togethers usually involve a lot of people, many of whom your toddler hasn't met before or spent much time with. Factor in Aunt Millie's boisterous laugh or your cousin Chris's numerous tattoos, and it's no wonder your kid may just want to hide in your shadow. "To a toddler, a party can seem like a sea of legs and high-above faces," says Dr. Singer. "He may have sensory overload and feel like he constantly needs to have you touching him or very close by."

How to Help Make a scrapbook of family photos and enjoy it with your child in the weeks leading up to the holidays so he can learn relatives' names and faces beforehand. Sharing old stories can also help familiarize him with family members, says Dr. Berman. If Aunt Millie makes the best chocolate-chip cookies, or your cousin Chris gives the best shoulder rides, be sure to tell him about that too. At the party, hold or stay close to your child until he seems ready to get down or leave your side. You can ask him if he'd like to play with other children, or perhaps encourage one other adult to interact with him while you're nearby, but don't push him. Remembering that his clingy behavior is a positive sign of his attachment--rather than a fault--can help you keep him feeling secure.

Scary Situation: Unwrapping a New Toy

Classic toys like shape sorters don't just sort shapes these days; now they also spin and light up at the slightest touch. Those bells and whistles can be delightful--or frightening, depending on your child's temperament and previous experience. If she becomes clingy or starts to cry, hit, or whine in the middle of opening presents, she may have had too much stimulation. "This doesn't mean the toy won't eventually be a favorite," says Dr. Singer. "Its novelty is just overwhelming at the moment, and she needs a sense of her own control to get away from it."

How to help Choose presents thoughtfully (ask yourself: does my child like loud, over-the-top playthings or soft, quiet ones?) and don't give more than three gifts in a sitting. Keep in mind that for a very young child, crinkling the wrapping paper--rather than actually playing with the toy--may be enough excitement for the time being. If a new gift seems to scare your child, let her retreat to something more familiar, like a favorite book or doll, or let her take a break in her bedroom, says H. Norman Wright, a family therapist and coauthor of Fears, Doubts, Blues, and Pouts: Stories About Handling Fear, Worry, Sadness, and Anger. "Later, gradually introduce her to the new plaything," he assures. Another smart idea: Just leave it out without wrapping it. When she's ready, she'll play with it.

Scary Situation: Spending the Night

Whether you're sleeping at your sister's house so the whole family can wake up together on Christmas morning or you've temporarily turned your toddler's digs into a guest room for your in-laws and asked him to bunk in his brother's room, sleeping in an unfamiliar place can be unsettling for a young kid. Bedtime is a ritual that toddlers rely on, and when you switch things up your little one can easily become disoriented.

How to help "Bring things from home to make the bedroom at a relative's feel as comfortable and familiar for your child as possible," says Dr. Singer. The more sights, sounds, and smells he recognizes the better. Take his favorite pj's, his lovey, and his pillow and blanket from home. It's equally important to stick to the usual bedtime routine. If you always give him a bath and read a book before bed, be sure to do just that. Children are also more likely to wake up in the middle of the night when they're away from home, says Dr. Singer, so pack a monitor if you'll be sleeping in a different room than your child--and bring a night-light to help him feel safe.

Yes, but that doesn't make it less scary. About 5 percent of toddlers cry so hard that they can't catch their breath, and the lack of air can make their skin appear purple or bluish. In some cases, a child may actually pass out after a tantrum, though she'll almost always regain consciousness within a minute and there are no lasting effects. Just make sure she doesn't hit her head if she falls, advises Barbara Huggins, M.D., professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas Health Center at Tyler. If your child is developing normally, there should be little cause for alarm. But if you notice the blueness when she's resting or she has trouble breathing, see your doctor. Happily, most kids stop screaming the blues by age 5.

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Parents magazine.

Copyright ? 2010 Meredith Corporation.

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