Holiday Meltdowns (Tips for avoiding holiday stress)


Riley & Liam enjoying some holiday magic

The holiday season is full of fun, excitement, and tradition.  It’s a time of decorations, baking, and thinking about others.  The anticipation seems to start a little bit earlier each year, regardless of your holiday, which means that the holiday season now runs from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  That’s a long stretch of time.

Hidden among all of the fun and excitement are two potentially destructive hidden stressors:  Exhaustion and over-stimulation.

Holiday related meltdowns are to be expected, no matter the age of your kids.

It’s reasonable to assume that kids are talking about the holidays with friends at school, learning about various traditions in their classrooms, and talking about it at home.  A lot.  Tis the season of wish lists, after all.

You can’t even run to the local pharmacy to pick up a toothbrush without encountering toys, holiday candy, and decorations the second you walk in the door.  Just the other day Riley became fixated on a toy at Walgreens.  A toy that would most certainly be abandoned within minutes of getting it home.  But with the pretty bow on the box?  She just had to have it.  Until we walked out the door empty-handed, and then she immediately forgot that it even existed.

The point is that the holidays are everywhere.  It’s very difficult for kids to stay focused on gratitude and wait patiently for their holiday to arrive when they are bombarded with imagery and toys every which way they turn.  Who wouldn’t have a meltdown once in a while?

A meltdown (or temper tantrum) is simply a physical and emotional release of pent up stress, exhaustion, and overstimulation.  It’s perfectly healthy for kids to release their stress this way, even if it does earn you a few stern looks from passersby.  Fear not, parents; it’s all part of growing up.  But there are steps you can take to avoid excessive stress this holiday season.  Below are some tips to do just that:

1.    Let them sleep:  Kids need sleep.  Specifically, somewhere between 10-14 hours of daily sleep for the under six crowd, and 8-10 from 7 on up.  Resist the urge to keep your kids up late for holiday related parties and other special treats, and ensure that they get adequate rest.  Lack of sleep leads to stress, exhaustion, and illness.  Holidays aren’t much fun if you’re cranky, tired, and sick.

2.    Eat well:  Adults often reference over-eating during the holiday season.  If presented with unhealthy choices, kids will most certainly do the same.  Stick to your normal meal/snack schedule for your kids.  Provide light meals before parties to avoid over-indulgence on snacks and sugary treats.  Offer desserts as you normally would.  Set a good example and be mindful of what your children really need.

3.    Limit parties/activities:  Everyone loves a holiday party.  It’s the perfect time to catch up with old friends and let the kids run free.  Until the kids become over-stimulated, and then it’s just stressful.  Choose the parties that will truly be family friendly and limit the amount of time you spend there.  60-90 minutes of party time is more than enough for kids 6 and under.  Older children might hang in there a bit longer, but behavior shifts quickly when boredom sets in.  Keeping your kids at a party too long can be a set-up for poor choices.  Keep it short and sweet.

4.    Factor in downtime:  It can be tempting to sign your kids up for several “camps” the minute school lets out for a couple of weeks.  School vacations serve a purpose.  Your kids are working hard at school, be it preschool or high school.  Allow them some downtime to hang out in pajamas all day, build forts, and just be a family.  Kids need time to regroup and relax.  Downtime is the best gift you can give your child.

5.    Create traditions:  The holiday season should be about family, tradition, and giving.  Due to the constant bombardment of stuff everywhere, it often becomes about wanting.  Your children will remember the cookie baking, tree decorating, caroling, and stories/games by the fire.  Whether it’s Elf on the Shelf or a countdown calendar, start building traditions that aren’t about toys and stuff.  My kids had a great time choosing and decorating our tree, and are now looking forward to baking Christmas cookies.  They have their moments when confronted with cool new toys everywhere they go, but the minute they get home it’s all about family time.

6.    Don’t force the photos:  I know, I know…everyone wants the annual picture with Santa.  Here’s the thing:  Some kids are petrified to sit on a stranger’s lap and smile.  Can you blame them?  Let your child choose whether or not she’s ready to sit on Santa’s lap or just wants to wave.  And try not to force your kids to pose for big family pictures for long periods of time.  Chances are they will be fairly over-stimulated by the time they even reach the holiday party, asking them to sit still and smile is actually asking a lot.

7.    Appreciate the little things:  Instead of focusing on 8 nights of gifts or the upcoming visit from Santa, try to make note of the small wonders of the season.  Our favorite activity during this time is to take “night drives” to see the lights and decorations around the neighborhood.  Take time to point out the lights, enjoy the smell of fresh baked cookies, and sit by the tree or fireplace and just read together.  Cue your kids to find magic in small acts of kindness and the simple pleasure of appreciating a beautifully decorated home.

8.    Let it happen:  As I mentioned earlier, meltdowns happen this time of year.  In general, the first instinct is to find a way to stop the tantrum.  People cite distraction, bargains, and removal from the target as useful tools.  What they fail to realize is that these are simply Band-Aid strategies.  Children need to release their stress, and often a meltdown or tantrum is the best way to do so.  Let them cry, let them yell, let them let it out…and then help them regroup and figure out why they had so much pent up stress.  A meltdown can be a very good thing.  It gives your child a chance to get it all out and then start fresh.  It gives your child a second chance.

How do you avoid holiday meltdowns?


About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)