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Holiday Survival Guide For Parents: Managing Your Child's Meltdowns

Holiday Survival Guide For Parents: Managing Your Child's Meltdowns

Lean in, take a seat, and grab a glass of whatever. I am going to share with you a traditional holiday recipe in our household. 

It calls for a dash of travel, disrupted routines, and a pinch of sugar (and then more and more and more). Combine all dry ingredients and, voila, you now have the perfect combination for toddler meltdowns. I call it the Holiday Hype Crash.

While it may not be a fan favorite, it is served up in big helpings every year around the winter holidays. Turns out, not just in our home, but in families across the globe. 

So, I am going to tell you what no one told me before I signed up for this mom gig. The holiday season is magical, and it also brings tears. Lots of tears, mostly from my toddler, but some from me, too. 

You may find yourself wondering, “What’s wrong with my child?” And the answer is nothing. If your toddler or child is extra emotional and their behaviors also seem, well, extra, then your child’s nervous system is right on track, doing exactly what it is designed to do. Don’t worry, you aren’t raising an angry elf, just a child who is working hard to navigate the stress (positive and negative) that comes along with normal development and the Yuletide. It is kind of like an Oreo, your child is that goodness stuck between two hard places. 

Let’s look at some reasons why toddlers meltdown more during the holiday season followed by some easy tips to help regulate their environment and their moods.

Decreased Predictability 

During the holiday season, routines often shift, naps are moved or missed, and the rhythm of a day takes on a new flow. While this altered schedule is often for good reason (family fun and holiday festivities), it can rob children of one thing they deeply thrive from - predictability. 

I was never one for math, but as a parent, there’s one equation I learned fairly quickly. Predictability equals safety, especially to the developing mind. And guess what’s considered predictable? Routines. 

Our children are constantly taking in information. Their threat detection and feeling centers are like antennas, reaching their feelers out to relay to the body whether something is safe or unsafe and whether something feels pleasant or feels unpleasant. 

When something feels unsafe, unpleasant, and/or is abstract, their brain sends a message to their body that says, “Danger!” and all of their resources are used to survive the perceived threat. This all happens automatically, often without the child’s conscious knowing, and because children are run by their emotions (because the logical part is still immature), their overwhelm comes out in the form of power struggles, tears, withdrawal, and “defiant” behaviors. 

What you can do

While we can’t keep our kiddos in a snow globe to block out all change all the time, there are things we can do to help our children process these shifts.

  • Announce transitions 
    • This helps children know what’s to come so they aren’t taken by surprise. 
    • This may sound like, “Do your one last thing and it is time to go.”
  • Create a visual schedule of the day’s events 
  • Use a timer
    • This is another concrete way for children to understand the concept of time. When children are empowered to set the timer themselves or they are given choices, it gives them some agency in a situation where they may feel powerless. 
  • Keep schedules predictable where you can
    • While you may not be able to keep the entire day congruent to their norm, see if you can find some predictability in small moments of the day. This may look like bringing their favorite nap stuffie along with them or beginning or ending the day in familiar ways.
    • You may also find that doing Feeling Check-Ins throughout the day helps everyone gauge where they are, which can regulate big emotions and behaviors before they explode. 

Increased Travel

Whether by car or plane, traveling can be stressful for children. Why? Well, rinse and repeat everything from above. Emotional and sensory overwhelm hijacks a child’s system which sends them into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn protective responses. What we see are big behaviors, yet it’s helpful to keep in mind that under those behaviors are big feelings and our child’s bid for help. 

What you can do

  • If you can, schedule one event per day to prevent overstimulation. This may mean spreading out holiday visits into multiple experiences.
  • If going by plane, arrive early to avoid rushing your child. I promise it will be better for everyone’s sanity. 
  • If going by car, take movement breaks for your child to stretch and organize their body.
  • Bring small activities such as books, puzzles, crayons, or sensory toys. 
  • Using a travel Feelings Poster can help kiddos notice and name their feelings and choose calming strategies wherever they are. 

Unfamiliar Family And Environments

You know Aunt Sue that you only see once a year and that one cousin who you can’t remember his name? If they feel foreign to you, then they do to your kiddo, too, and that can feel scary to a child who is wired to attach to those they are familiar with. 

While some children may jump right in, others will take time to warm up. Trust your child’s intuition and follow their lead. Being made to hug Aunt Sue when your child doesn’t want to can send them into an immediate stressed-induced outburst. Other kiddos, because they want to draw in attachment from you, will comply, however, their emotional overwhelm will stack until it bursts outside of them in big behaviors. 

What you can do

  • Role-play social situations beforehand.
  • Prep your child with an “out.” Create a code word or perhaps your child feels more comfortable with nonverbals such as touching your elbow when they need a break. Whatever it is, make a plan together.
  • Notice discomfort cues and create small connection moments to attune your child’s brain such as holding their hand or sitting with them on your lap. One of the most effective ways to help your child’s nervous system adapt to the newness is to get on their level and offer, “You are safe.” 
  • Take sensory and body/movement breaks away from the noise and commotion periodically. If you can get outside, even better!

Hungry And Tired 

Many meltdowns happen when children are hungry and exhausted. Add in the sugar that usually accompanies holiday eats and treats, and children become wired and tired, and then eventually crash. 

What you can do

  • Manage sugar intake and pack protein-rich snacks like beef sticks, nut butter, or trail mix. 
  • Ensure your child has available healthy food at age-appropriate times.
  • Stick to nap and sleep routines as best as possible.
  • Schedule quiet time so that your child can recharge.
  • Take a Time-In to regroup and regulate.  

Above all, the best thing we can manage is ourselves. Our kids are going to have big emotions because that is part of their developmental process. How we manage our stress and triggers will greatly impact the rhythm of our home. As you hold space for your child, remember to give yourself some grace, too. 

And who knows, adding in some of these tips, you may just create a new recipe this year - one with fewer tears and more joy. 

•  •  •

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Ashley Patek is the Content Director for Generation Mindful. Ashley is an occupational therapist, certified lifestyle/parenting coach, and mama to four children; two boys and two daughters born to Heaven. She believes that parenting starts with us as parents and focuses on the whole-parent, whole-child, and whole-family dynamic.