– Kevin McCallister, Home Alone, 1990
This morning I woke up with nervous butterflies uncontrollably circling in my mid-section. I dreamt that I had entered a race but in the midst of many familiar faces, could not find anyone who knew the starting location with only a few minutes left until the starter pistol was to be shot. Ready or not, we are off to the races with the start of the holiday season. No matter which holidays you celebrate – Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or another, you likely have a full calendar of events this month with responsibilities to go with it. Because it’s easy to anticipate that life will be more chaotic, you can also anticipate that children will feel the pressure and be more emotional this month. There may be more upsets, more anger and more frustration and since there will be less time to deal with it, children can get overwhelmed more easily. We all can! Knowing this is the case, what can you do in preparation?
In the hustle, bustle and excitement of the season, a meltdown can sneak up on a child. Hunger, tiredness or frustration with crowds and chaos can boil over at a moment’s notice leaving a child feeling helpless and out of control. First and very practically, keep a protein snack in your car, travelling bag or purse at all times (peanut butter crackers, cheese crackers). You may feel like you are constantly eating over the holidays but children are much more interested in playing and experiencing the excitement of all of the people around them. They may eat less rather than more. Also, sugar will be abundant in its many tantalizing forms so having some quick protein on hand can indeed save the day when a child’s attitude and blood sugar plummet.
Late nights and lots of time out and about can be exhausting for everyone. Be sure to look for opportunities for a little extra sleep or rest time in which children can be quiet. If you need to, schedule a quiet time each day. It doesn’t have to be long. Model and benefit by making a cup of tea and sitting down with a magazine or good book yourself. For the child, set up a stack of library books, puzzles, or a short pre-selected video. Those moments of down time can boost endurance for the big holiday marathon.
Promoting self awareness
In addition, you can help children become more emotionally self aware. Talk about all of the ways that your body physically experiences frustration, anger or upset. Does your face get red? Do you feel hot? Do you breathe faster? Do you feel shaky or unsteady? Discuss this in a quiet moment when kids are calm. Talk about these telltale signs. You can help them picture a volcano with lava bubbling and boiling. How can you prevent the lava from boiling over? Here are some leading questions you can ask your child:
- How does your face feel when you are getting upset?
- How does your body feel?
- What happens if you stay in the situation that’s upsetting you?
- What could you do if you feel those signs (face getting hot) to slow down and stop from getting more upset?
Through your questions, work together to identify ways to deal with the feelings in the moment. Ideas may include practicing slow breathing, holding a favorite toy or “lovey” or moving to a quieter place. If they cannot help themselves, they could consider going to an adult for help. A great way to involve your child in the solution is to create a signal (hands on the cheeks like Mcauley Culkin in Home Alone?) that is private for only the two of you so that you know when she’s getting upset and needs a break. This agreement may save you both from embarrassment and make your holiday more joyful.
Preparing a family game plan
Be sure the whole family has a game plan for dealing with the chaos. Having a discussion in advance of holiday plans with your parent partner about how you can work together when challenges arise will ensure that there’s not an additional meltdown between the two of you. Here are some key partnership agreements that will allow you to coordinate as a team.
- Agree on a response when a child gets upset during a party or in the middle of a shopping mall. How will you both handle the situation? Which one of you will take the lead in dealing with it? Will the other distract the siblings to help? Will you designate a meeting place after you’ve addressed the issue? Will you decide instead to leave?
- Agree with your partner in advance of a party how long you are going to stay and then stick to the plan. Who and how will you set the childrens’ expectations and give them warning so that there is only cooperation when it’s time to leave?
- Decide upon family signals that feel natural in a circumstance. Between partners, it’s helpful to find a signal that signifies that one or more of the children needs a break and it’s time to leave before there’s a problem.
Just the simple act of talking about what to do in stressful circumstances can set all family members’ minds at ease. Expectations are set. Agreements are made. And all know what to do in case of difficulty. The holidays can be the “most wonderful time of the year” but acknowledging the stress that accompanies the season can go a long way toward alleviating some of it and creating more opportunity to fully experience your family being together and the many moments of joy along the way.