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9 Ways to Improve Challenging Behavior During the Holidays

By Margaret Johnson & Beth Holliman

The holidays are here, whether we are ready or not! The holiday season can be a very magical time for families, but let's face it, there can also be a lot of stress and tension during this time of year that impacts kids and parents alike. Many families have some adjustments to their daily routine between November and January. Most kids have a break from school, and it's common for parents to take a few days off work if they can. Families might travel to visit with loved ones or have visitors from out of town. These changes along with new expectations and demands, different people to interact with, and a host of other novel and unfamiliar events often lead to new challenges. These holiday-related situations may increase challenging behavior for kids who struggle to communicate, manage emotions, and adjust to changes. And as adults, we also may find ourselves struggling to communicate well or manage our feelings or adjust to things!

These behaviors might be a sign that your child is having difficulty adjusting to changes in their routine during the holidays:

  • Refusing to get in the car when it's time to go somewhere
  • Being rude, unwelcoming, or awkward with visitors
  • Showing off or attention-seeking in front of new people
  • Remaining too loud and boisterous when it's time to quiet down
  • Melting down at bedtime or mealtime
  • Hiding or isolating during new activities


And here is what you can do about it:

  • Look for patterns, and plan accordingly. What changes to the routine are likely to be difficult for your child? How do they tend to deal with new people, different food, or new situations that you can predict will be hard for them? Think about ways in which you can make the process easier for them. Even better, consider asking them what's hard about those changes in routine and what they think might help.
  • Set realistic expectations. For example, if your child has a hard time on long car rides, they will probably struggle on the 4-hour ride to Grandma and Grandpa's house. Expect this, and plan for it! Consider doing things that might make it easier, such as stopping for breaks or bringing an activity. Work with your child on this. Ask them what they think might help!
  • Give your child plenty of notice about upcoming activities or events and provide details that will help them adjust. For example, "Grandma and Aunt Barb will be here on Wednesday night, and they will be sleeping on the fold-out couch."
  • Review the expectations with your child before engaging in new activities. "We are going to your sister's play, and I want you to sit next to me and whisper in my ear if you need something."
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  • Be prepared to help your child calm down if they are overwhelmed with emotions. Keep in mind this may involve listening and supporting their feelings. It might not be the right time to lecture or try to reason with them. Instead, let them know that it is ok to feel the way that they are feeling and that you are there for them. Model calmness, it is contagious!
  • Ask for help if you need it. Perhaps someone else has more energy or patience to deal with whatever is going on for your child. Go easy on yourself!
  • If you have to impose your will during a difficult moment, try to circle back with your child in a calmer moment to talk through what happened. Listen supportively, share your concerns, and work with them to talk through mutual solutions.
  • It's okay to drop certain expectations. If you anticipate some difficulty, letting go of an expectation, for the moment, can reduce escalating the situation. Come back and re-address the situation when everyone is calm. For example:
    Parent: "How come you wanted to stay in your room during dinner?"
    Child: "Because the younger cousins are too noisy."
    Parent: "Agreed! They are noisy! I'm here to help. And I want to make sure you get to eat and spend time with your aunt and Grandma. So, what can we do? Can you think of a way that you could eat with everyone and not have it be so noisy?"
  • Aim for a "win-win." In Collaborative Problem Solving, we look for solutions that address both the child's concern and the adult's concern. Allowing the youth to weigh in on solutions is a great way to empower and involve them. For example:
    Parent: "How come you had a hard time keeping your hat and gloves on when we were walking to the car?"
    Child: "They were too itchy."
    Parent: "Okay, I hear that. And I want to make sure you stay warm enough. So, help me think of a way that we can keep you warm without being itchy. Do you have any ideas?"

What better time than the holiday season to approach loved ones with empathy and remember that people are all doing the best they can! Happy holidays everyone!


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