The holiday season is meant to be a magical time, but often it is used as leverage to control a child’s behavior. Kind of like a mistletoe of shame that hangs over them. Bah humbug.
It is in the songs we sing. You better be good and you better not cry because the big ole’ guy in the red suit is watching and judging …
And don’t forget the trendy holiday rituals. That Elf who sits on the shelf and hides behind the TV and in the pantry … yup, he watches too ...
It also shows up in our parenting practices. All sorts of tactics are created in an attempt to get children to comply and behave in acceptable ways.
Presents are put under the tree only to be later taken away every time there is a hint of “defiance” or misbehavior. Children are asked to follow this dangling carrot all the way to the big day. How terrible it must feel to fear messing up.
Under the guise of discipline, some parents control their child’s behavior through punishment and reward systems, and they may even succeed in modifying their child’s behavior. But the cost is high, much higher than the total sum of presents under the tree.
The cost is your relationship with your child, and even more profoundly, the relationship they have with themselves. Children may learn to comply out of fear and shame or they may power struggle their way through the season. Regardless of which protective response your child’s nervous system activates, instead of learning tools for emotional regulation, impulse control, and conflict resolution, they learn to play whatever part their caregiver asks of them.
Attachment is innate. It has survival value. Children are wired to belong to their family system, and so they figure out of necessity how to repress their emotions or needs when their adults cannot tolerate their own.
We have a real opportunity to rewrite the narrative here - an invitation to focus the holidays on family and giving and togetherness, keeping that separate from the developmental journey our children are on. Our children are not good only when they obey or behave in convenient ways. They are not only deserving of our love, attention, and, in this case, gifts because they don’t meltdown or push back.
Our children are always good … deserving … worthy.
They always warrant our love and attachment.
Misbehavior is Developmental
Misbehavior is developmental. A child’s brain is immature and it takes practice to strengthen the skills and brain regions responsible for all higher-level human functioning. This comes packaged as big emotions, meltdowns, and pushing boundaries.
Often, we see these behaviors and attempt to punish them out of our children. We think we need to take back control and power, but punishment does not enhance development, it hinders it.
Behavior is communication. Our children act the way they feel, and under every outburst, there is a lagging skill or unmet need.
We see flailing, defiant, unmotivated, sneaky, manipulative kiddos. That is our narrowed lens. When we zoom out, we may see that with their whole body, our children are basically saying, “I need you.”
I need help controlling my impulses.
I need help because my emotions are bigger than me and I don’t know what to do with them.
I need help because acting out of control feels scary.
I need help because I want connection and to feel valued.
I need help because I am hungry, tired, and overwhelmed.
Our children feel bad, they aren’t bad.
Managing Misbehavior And Holiday Stress
If we are feeling the stress of the holidays, the excitement, and the hustle and bustle, then our kids are, too.
Here are some things you can do to discipline (not punish) your kids this year:
- When your child feels bad and acts badly, get on their level and connect with them.
- Set an empathetic limit as needed.
- Once they are regulated, revisit what happened via a Time-In so that their “next time toolbelt” expands just a bit.
Rinse and repeat.
Rinse and repeat every day leading up to the holidays and all those after. We won’t nail every opportunity. We don’t have to.
We won’t be perfect. We don’t need to.
We will mess up and yell and say regretful things. We are human, and there is something beautiful about letting our children see our humanness because it offers them the freedom to embrace theirs.
Final Parenting Tip
Leave the presents under the tree without threats, bribes, and shame.
Let the magic live.
And what you may find is that the real magic extends way above Santa’s sleigh and gift sack. What you just might find is that the real magic is inside all of the little moments where you choose relationship over power.
The result is a child who is fearlessly themselves, who learns respect and empathy because it is modeled to them. That is a gift to the world.