It’s hard to believe the holidays are upon us again. The festive details are not always noticed or appreciated by those who are alone, suffering, compromised in any way. For many families, the holidays are a time of overscheduling, overstimulation, overdoing in many areas. I hear parents bemoaning how exhausted and frazzled they are around this time. With diminished patience, energy and time, our expectations of our children can be unrealistic, setting them up for failure rather than success, bringing meltdowns and power struggles.

Given all behavior has motivating factors, we only see what is on the surface, the “tip of the iceberg.” Understanding what’s causing the behavior and from where it’s coming are what we need to attend to. Otherwise, our own motivating factors will collide with our child’s in power struggles, with emotional and ineffective reactions. Example: Our child is too tired, needing some down time, yet we expect him to do “one more errand” with us, or go to “one more holiday activity” (which we anticipate will be “fun” or “magical”). Instead, he has a meltdown. This behavior is his expression of how he’s doing, his internal “barometer.” When he’s acting inappropriately, it’s our cue that something is wrong, that our expectations have clashed with his ability to behave the way we want. That means he could be hurting, angry, exhausted, jealous, hungry, sad, with his behavior signaling he needs our support, not our wrath.

The children who are “more” — temperamentally, physically, emotionally, and/or mentally — demand more vigilance, to ensure peaceful transitions, quiet time, understanding and connection. Rather than reacting with impatience, anger or shaming, we need to hear and honor our child’s perspective, not simply operate from ours. This requires us to disengage, to listen to the root of the problem and respond with unconditional acceptance. We may need to limit the festive activities, creating simple pleasures at home. During the holidays, it’s common to be socializing more, with our children being in the care of new or multiple babysitters. We expect our children to adjust seamlessly, making our lives easier, yet that may not be realistic. Some children “go with the flow,” while others have a difficult time with change, transitions, increased stimulation. Their behavior will let us know, at some point, that the arrangements didn’t work for them.

Paying attention to what our reactions communicate to our children is important. We might inadvertently shame them with rhetorical questions (particularly age-inappropriate ones), threatening questions they don’t understand, and dramatized disappointment in their behaviors and decisions. When children perceive they have saddened or frustrated their parent(s), it indicates we have taken their behavior personally, blocking the possibility for connection. The heightened expectations, the frenetic pace and the reduced availability undermine our ability to listen, to compassionately respond. When our child’s behavior is crying out “Stop! Please hear me! I’m struggling. I can’t do this!” our responsibility is to use connective communication, by speaking to the emotional root. We might say something like: “You’re having a hard time. We’re doing too much and it’s just not fun anymore. I bet you’d like some time to just snuggle and read stories at home.” That gives the message we understand. But if we’re on the wrong track, she’ll let us know!

 


There may be times when our plans can’t be changed, or aren’t negotiable. This is a good chance to collaborate with our child on what would help soften the edges of those expectations and the activities. For example: “We promised Grandpa and Grammy we would meet them at the concert and have dinner with them. You don’t feel ready to be around so many people and noise. Let’s figure out what we can do to help you. Tell me what you need to make this work better.” Some parents believe this is spoiling their child, giving her too much power, letting her control the family’s plans. My response to that is twofold: what makes our perspective any more important than hers? Secondly, when we share her lens, we might see that we have expected her to sit through hours of boring adult time, function on less sleep, be exposed to considerable sensory stimulation (noise, festive events, crowds, smells, foods), while behaving brilliantly!

It’s possible to problem solve together for a win-win outcome. It doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with her solution, or cancel our plans, however it does mean we listen to and acknowledge how she’s feeling. As parents, it’s our job to set limits, as long as we recognize it’s the goal of our children to wriggle out of them at every opportunity. Many parents desperately try to coax their children into happy “compliance” (a word I dislike). We cannot force a child to see things from an adult perspective. Although a tempting notion, making our lives so much easier, it’s a pretty absurd expectation. Keep in mind that setting limits isn’t necessarily a matter of absolutes.

The holidays are a time to maintain a reliable schedule, good sleep, exercise, and nutrition. It’s also a good time for understanding the need to set limits and provide structure for our children. However, in the process, we must treat our children the way we would like to be treated — with respect and dignity.

Happy Holidays!