unhappy girl with scarf

The holiday season is filled with extended family, fun, and traditions, but it's also filled with schedule changes, stress, and added responsibility--a recipe for your child's holiday meltdown. Learn what you can do to avoid the meltdown this year and how to deal with it.

What is a holiday meltdown?
You'd probably recognize a holiday meltdown if you saw one. Either your child has had such a tantrum or you've witnessed someone else's: the child will scream, cry, argue, or fall limp to the floor. While it's rarely any worse than a common tantrum, the holiday meltdown seems more severe because it tends to happen in front of a lot of people and often out of the blue.

What causes holiday meltdowns?
Although this tear-sodden spectacle may appear to come out of nowhere, seasoned parents can usually see it coming. They might be acting a little "off" or seem edgier than usual. Then the child might start to get crabby while the tantrum behavior continues to escalate, culminating in the grand finale. Hand in Hand Parenting, an organization that provides parenting instruction and support, emphasizes that any big celebration brings big feelings that children don't always express appropriately. Additional factors that contribute to increased tantrums during this time of year include:

  • Peripheral stress: Parents experience a lot of extra stress during the holidays and it's contagious: kids will often sense and reflect this stress. Perhaps you may express concern over how your children will behave at get-togethers, which may then cause children to be hyper-aware of their behavior, leading to the behaviors you're trying to avoid.
  • Anticipation and letdown: Even if the anticipation of a holiday isn't built up in your home, it may be outside of the house. The months between Halloween and New Years are saturated with ads, store displays, and decorations that could cause your child to expect a big to-do. When reality doesn't match up, they may experience a feeling of letdown.
  • Sensory overload: Children's nervous systems can only handle so much sensory information. Their limbic systems aren't sophisticated enough to know how to filter out unimportant sounds, sights, or other sensory input. While an adult might choose a relaxation technique to manage this overload, children usually express their discomfort with raw emotion.
  • Schedule changes: Many kids are used to a regular schedule. However, when school is out for the holidays, that all changes. Big meals at unpredictable times of day and later-than-usual bedtimes are triggers for holiday meltdowns.
  • Attention-seeking: Let's face it, adults get distracted preparing for the holidays and kids know it. Some holiday meltdowns are nothing more than a way of demanding some more attention.

Who's at risk for holiday meltdowns?
Little kids aren't the only ones who throw tantrums. Though theirs may be quieter and snarkier, teens and tweens do it, too. Adults are usually better at handling stress, but often feel the same anticipation as kids, compounded with the pressure to create a perfect holiday for the family. Without addressing stress, we're all susceptible to holiday meltdowns.

Tips to Avoid Meltdowns
Avoiding holiday meltdowns is as much about an in-the-moment response as it is prevention. Paying attention to the factors that cause tantrums can help you anticipate and stave off meltdowns, as can letting children wear comfortable clothes once the holiday photos are over and having a prepared exit strategy from parties and other events. As with anything, being prepared is paramount. When tantrums do happen, you need to respond appropriately so as not to make it worse. Try these tips in the face of hysteria:

  • Help a child who's on the verge of melting down instead of avoiding them. Try to play with them or, if they're too upset, guide them somewhere private and gently explain to them what's expected of them before they return to the group.
  • Let kids cry. Most of the time, children simply need to cry it out in the company of someone they trust. Afterwards, they'll usually feel better and recharged.
  • Deflect other people's criticism. Holidays mean relatives, many of whom have an opinion about the behavior of other people's children. Let them know ahead of time that your child is feeling a little off and that heightened sensitivity towards them will help keep the anxiety to a minimum.