Family

Better Not Pout, Better Not Cry?

Why holidays bring out the worst in our kids—and how parents can keep the peace.

 Illustration: Two young children, mid-tantrum, act out while the outline of their parent holds two seemingly heavy presents.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Around this time of year, every year, my children go bonkers. It’s not just their maniacal excitement for Christmas—although there’s that, too. (My son asked Santa for a hotel this year.) What I’m talking about is an all-encompassing character metamorphosis; it feels like my kids have been possessed by clingy meltdown-prone demons who refuse to sleep. Before my 4-year-old daughter even opened the door of her room at 6:40 this morning, she was wailing.

This seasonal insanity is playing out in millions of households right now, perhaps including yours. Where does this come from, and what can parents do about it? I reached out to a handful of psychologists to find out, and I’m relieved to learn that these changes are totally normal. The holiday season is joyful, yes, but it’s also stressful for everyone, including and sometimes especially for kids—but there are strategies parents can use to make the coming weeks easier.

Here’s the main reason kids go nuts in December: Their routines get seriously upended. They just had Thanksgiving break, and before they know it, they get another week with no school. If you’re traveling over the holidays, kids get plucked not only from their usual schedule but also from their home. Even if you’re staying home, your house is rearranged, with a tree where the chair usually is and a chair where the toy box used to be and lots of fragile things to break everywhere. Weekends are taken over by party-going and baking and house-decorating, and parents have extra errands to run.

Basically, “this time of year, all of the things we put in place that help children feel safe and secure and know what to expect go out the window,” says Catherine Mogil, a psychologist at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Add to that all the extra candy and staying up late, and no wonder kids get a little screamy. (I get a little screamy, too.)

To counter this problem, the psychologists I talked to suggested that parents preserve at least a few routines over the holidays. “Have some strategically set things that don’t change,” Mogil says. If you snuggle in bed with your kids every morning, try to keep doing it. If you have a bedtime routine, follow it wherever you may be. And while it’s fine to let your kids go to bed late on special days, try to maintain a normal sleep schedule the rest of the time. It can be appealing to let all the old rules go out the window—we want the holidays to feel special, and in pursuit of that we often eschew normalcy—but “leaving routines behind is the big mistake parents make,” says psychologist Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development. Think about ways you can work routines into your holiday traditions, too—maybe every night before bed your kids get to add a new ornament to the tree or sing a holiday carol together. The more ways you can incorporate consistency into the holiday season, the more grounded your kids will feel.

In this same vein, if you have kids who crave control and like to know what’s coming, it can help to go over the general plan of the day every morning during the Yuletide weeks. Your Advent calendar could even help, providing a daily excuse to talk to your kids about what events are happening which days. Even if you don’t know exactly how the day is going to go, provide anchors, like that you’re going to drive to Grandma’s after lunch and that you’re having dinner at a restaurant. Making a visual list of the tentative plan can be helpful for kids who absorb things visually better than verbally, Mogil says.

Another reason kids act out around the holidays is because we have expectations for their behavior that we haven’t communicated to them. We expect they won’t make fart jokes at Aunt Gertrude’s and then scold them when they do, but did we ever actually tell them that Aunt Gertrude doesn’t like fart jokes? The holidays are full of strange situations and rituals—“we’re throwing kids into situations that they might not have had a lot of practice for,” says Stephanie Lee, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute’s ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center in New York—so talk with your kids about them beforehand. If you’re doing a huge shopping run with your kids on New Year’s Eve, tell them that the store will be really busy and you want them to hold onto the shopping cart. If you’re going to a party and don’t want them playing upstairs, explain that before you arrive. And when they do meet or exceed your expectations, tell them that. “Catch them being good and reward them,” Lee says. Label your praise so they know what they did that you appreciated, like I really liked how nicely you played with your younger cousin even after he threw the candy cane at your head.

All the excitement over gifts and traditions can also take an emotional toll on little bodies, causing them to misbehave or become clingy. Many kids experience a kind of anticipatory anxiety before big events, in which they feel excited but also nervous about what to expect. (This is why so many kids have tantrums at their own birthday parties—they’re overwhelmed by all the feelings.) Kids may not be able to grasp when Christmas is coming, even if you tell them. My 4-year-old wakes up every few days to inquire, “So is today Christmas?” and then has a meltdown when I tell her it’s not. Imagine you were expecting a brand new car but you didn’t know when it would arrive or what kind of car it would be and that you also had zero emotional regulation skills. You’d have frequent meltdowns, too.

To tamp down this anxiety, ease up on the Santa and present talk at home, because “that can be too much for children,” Klein says. Klein also cautions against using Santa or the “Elf on the Shelf” as a form of blackmail, telling kids that they’re being watched and won’t get gifts if they misbehave. That idea can be terrifying for kids, she says, because there isn’t a child in the world who doesn’t occasionally misbehave, and often this misbehavior isn’t intentional but just a byproduct of having lots of feelings and an underdeveloped frontal lobe.

Speaking of gifts, how should parents deal with them? Klein says fewer presents are better than more, because kids can get overwhelmed by so much stuff and the anticipation of opening it all. Two or three big gifts, she says, are better than 15 small ones. If you have a lot, brainstorm ways to spread out the gift-opening so it doesn’t all happen at once—open a few presents the night before, maybe.

If you can’t keep gifts to a minimum (grandparents, I’m looking at you), and your kid has a meltdown after opening his 20th gift, take a deep breath and remember that the whole experience is rather a lot for a small being. With younger kids especially, Klein says it’s normal for children to get overwhelmed in the moment and act out. “They sound like they’re ungrateful, and they’re whining and crying, but it’s partly because we overdo it—and because they have no way to take that all in,” she says. “A child gets into a kind of adrenaline rush which becomes ‘more, more, more, give me, give me, give me,’ and they can’t control it.”

Lee adds that present-related disappointment is normal and OK for kids to experience, but that it’s helpful, again, to talk to children in advance about what the present-opening will entail and what you expect of them—that, for instance, as soon as they open a gift, you expect them to say thank you even if it’s not the present that they wanted, but that it is OK for them to be secretly sad and to talk to you about it later. It can help to involve your kids in the family gift-giving process. Have them shop with you and pick a gift out for a relative, or encourage them make their own gifts, or let them help you wrap gifts. By getting involved, kids learn how meaningful it is to give gifts and can also imagine how much it would sting if someone rejected a gift they spent time and effort on.

There’s one other major reason kids act out around the holidays: us. You don’t need me to point out that parents get incredibly stressed this time of year. We may have financial woes due to extra expenses, work may be extra demanding, we may be worried about buying the right gifts or throwing the right party, we may be stressed about traveling or spending time with family, and we may be sad because the holidays remind us of the loss of a loved one. Our kids feel this stress and respond to it—and it shapes how we engage with our kids, too. Maybe we don’t pay as much attention to them as we usually do, or we have less patience than normal, or we overmonitor and nitpick because Grandma’s around and is making us nervous.

So as much as you can during this zany season, take stock of your feelings and expectations. Every morning before getting out of bed, take a few deep breaths, Mogil suggests, and then think about things on your schedule that you might be able to skip or simplify. (Do you really need to bake three different kinds of cookies for the preschool teacher when one batch will do?) Delegate what you can to relatives; maybe Aunt Gertrude can look after one of the kids while you run to the store, or Grandpa could set the table.

Also—now this sounds corny, but it can help, Mogil says—make yourself a calming mantra that you repeat to yourself throughout your day, like Let go of the things that don’t matter or I’ve done well and I don’t have to be perfect. And regularly remind yourself what the holidays are really about: not finding the perfect gift or making the perfect meal or trimming the perfect tree, but family and love and children—who may seem like they need an exorcism but really are just bumbling along as best they can.