It’s the Holidays. How to Handle the Inevitable Toddler Tantrums

The holidays means family, and that includes the youngest members who don't always behave

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There they all were from far and near— my kids and their partners in every room of my New York apartment. They were standing, lounging, chatting, drinking, passing my 6-month old grandson from lap to lap.  Piercing the din was the insistent whine of my 4-year-old granddaughter for…something.

I adore my granddaughter. She has loving and attentive parents. But right now her Dad was animatedly defending the Rams while her mom was laughing at her sister’s teasing about their childhood cupcake stand. Meanwhile, as I carried a stack of plates, my granddaughter pulled at my sleeve, shrilly demanding another rainbow cookie.  Couldn’t she play on her own for ten seconds? Should I speak to her parents about this?

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Then the flashback hit. I am transported over the decades to our weeklong visit to Nana and Papa in California. My girls are sleep-deprived and stretched to the limit. They’re bored with crayons and Legos, they’re not allowed to touch anything, and the adults are ignoring them. My 7-year-old starts running in manic circles around the glass cocktail table while her younger sister emits blood-curdling shrieks. They’re at their worst. And Nana is giving me the look, soon to be a lesson on teaching my monsters manners.

Tensions and joy! ‘Tis the season. Surely there’s got to be a better way. So I asked a bevy of experts about handling all that pent-up anxiety that comes with mixing the holidays, family and clashing parenting philosophies, and they all agreed on one point: Keep the kids’ routines as normal as possible. Good luck with that! Excellent advice, no doubt, but hard to do when everything you depend on is changed.

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That’s Tension # 1: the struggle between normality and nothing-like-normal. Then Tension #2: your own wish to enjoy the reunions versus the need to constantly supervise your children. And finally, especially with your own parents: Tension # 3: the imperative of being your child’s parent versus that old pull toward being your parents’ child and needing their approval.

Can this holiday be happy?   Sure, if imperfectly. But it requires a lot of forethought and preparation. So here are some tips for navigating upcoming gatherings and keeping the season bright.

Prepare Your Kids

Young children need to know what will happen in an unfamiliar setting away from home. Before you leave, suggests Fran Walfish, a child and family psychologist in Beverly Hills and author of The Self-Aware Parent, make a picture book together. Draw the airplane, Grandma’s house, the people, and the gifts, right through to “bye-bye,” the return plane and home. “Visually narrate what will happen,” Walfish says, “all the changes, including sleeping in a different bed.”

Definitely take the little one’s “blankie” or other attachment objects as well as favorite toys and familiar foods. For older children, explain what will happen and the rules for Grandma’s house. Make sure they bring things they like to do, such as video games, and, if possible plan some time on the trip, however brief, that’s just for them.

Prepare the Grandparents

Before you go, talk candidly with Grandma. Explain the challenges the kids will face, how they’re likely to react, and ask whether or how much the grandparents want to take charge of them. Also ask if there are breakable things they’d be willing to put away or if there are rules about certain areas. If you have strong preferences about how sweets or gifts are handled, gently express your feelings, but don’t be surprised (and remain flexible) if Nana and Papa can’t hold themselves back.

Above All, Prepare Yourself

Strike a balance in your mind between the fun you hope to have— the food, catching up, laughs, and memories—and the reality that your first priority has to be parenting your kids. That’s an order: “If your 4-year-old is having a tantrum because she’s overwhelmed and overtired, “says Walfish, “you need to stop everything and settle your child.”  If you’d really like to talk to people, make a plan ahead of time with your partner—or a willing aunt or uncle—to take turns supervising the kids.

And if Grandma does criticize you or your kids?   Have your response ready.  “Agree with them,” says Vicki Panaccione, a child psychologist and founder of the Better Parenting Institute in Melbourne, FL, “Say, ‘You’re right, he is being really whiny today. I guess if I were four, I’d probably be that way too because there is so much going on that he’s not used to and he’s out of his routines.'”

While you’re there

When over stimulation, exhaustion and changes in routine make your kids clingy, whiny, or otherwise impossible, suggests Panaccione, “Limit the overwhelm [sic] by coming to their rescue if they are inundated by people or gifts and explain to them why everyone wants to hold or kiss them.” Whatever their age, give them a breather and, if possible, some exercise. Read them a story in another room. Go for a walk, go to a store, change the scene. And cut your kids (and yourself) some slack. None of you are likely to be at your best.

Most of all, try to relax and enjoy the good things rather than aiming for the impossible (news flash: your 3-year-old will not sit at the table long enough for you to savor a meal). “Focus on family togetherness,” says Walfish, “ Contrary to popular belief, what kids love most about Christmas and Hannukah is not the gifts. It’s the bonding and coming together of family.”

Okay, so your family holidays won’t be like that Norman Rockwell picture. They never were. No one’s holiday was. But they’re your family—and your kids’ family. So laugh or cry or hug your child and live in this moment. And remember that it may be another year before it happens again—and never exactly like this.

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