Do you have a picture of what the holidays should look like? Most of us do whether we admit it or not. When the reality doesn’t match the expectation you have in your head, it feels awful. Parents of acting-out kids know this firsthand, because the reality so often doesn’t match their expectation.
If you go into the holidays saying “I’m only going to enjoy this time if my child is compliant and behaves,” you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, frustration and anger right off the bat.
Where does this picture of the holidays come from in the first place? Sometimes it’s from our own childhood. We think, “This is how it was in my family, so this is how it should be.” Or we see others and compare ourselves, saying, “Everyone else’s family seems to be doing great. Why does ours seem like such a mess?” Another picture that most people have comes from our culture: This season is supposed to be an enjoyable, loving family time of making memories when we get together and celebrate. It’s everywhere you go. The advertisements are all “joy-joy-happy-happy,” and when that isn’t the reality in your house, you’re left feeling sad, frustrated and alone.
Added to this, if you had a rough childhood and the holidays were always stressful and tense, you might have told yourself that when you had kids, things would be different. As a result, you created a particular picture of how the holidays would be, but maybe you’re finding they’re feeling a lot like they were when you were a kid. The disappointment and sense of defeat can be crushing.
The Loneliest Parent on the Block: When You Have a Defiant Child
When your child acts out regularly or is oppositional and defiant and isn’t behaving (to say the least) in a very loving manner, it’s hard to think about making warm memories. But remember, just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean that everything is magically supposed to be perfect and your child will behave; it doesn’t automatically turn into a warm, fuzzy time. And if your kid is calling you names, stealing, lying, punching holes in the walls or engaging in risky behavior, the reality and the expectation are thrown in sharp contrast to each other. Where does that leave you? Feeling even more isolated.
While finding a way to parent through the holidays is definitely a process, here are some things you can think about this year that will help create traditions that work for your family — and space for yourself to find meaning.
Be kind to yourself. It’s so important to be gentle with yourself at this time of year. We have such high expectations for our kids, for ourselves, for others and for ourselves. It’s easy to be disappointed. Instead of beating yourself up, know that you’re doing the best you can. Acknowledge that nobody has a perfect life, no matter how things look on the outside. You might even write this down on a notecard and carry it with you, and take it out when you need reinforcement.
Don’t compare yourself (or your family) to others: When you’re comparing your family to others and feeling like you’re coming up short, it feels terrible. It’s human nature to do this and it takes a lot of work to stop. Understand that it’s really a no-win situation. When we start comparing our family to others who seem more “together,” (even though that isn’t always the reality) we start to feel anxious. We then try to force our kids to behave a certain way so we can live up to the picture we have in our heads. The important thing is to start by “accepting the family you have, not the one you might wish you had.” Focus on yourself and your family, and try not to worry about what other people are doing.
Don’t Blame—Make a Plan: It’s easy to blame your child for a less-than wonderful holiday. The message is, “If you hadn’t been behaving this way, things would be fine. You’re ruining Christmas for us.” This might make your child feel angry and resentful. It could also make her feel even more powerful—after all, you’ve just told her that your happiness rests in her ability to behave. Instead of giving her that power, take it back. Create a plan for the holiday that works for your family, and try to carve out time and activities that fill you up. It might include going to your house of worship, calling an old friend to talk when you have a moment, or making a special dish from your childhood. Whatever it is, find something that makes you feel good.
Create a Plan of Action for Family Gatherings: Do a Holiday Gathering plan ahead of time. When you’re making your plan, consider what you have control over. If you think it would be helpful, you can say to your kid ahead of time, “These are the expectations and if that doesn’t happen then we’re going to leave.” Some kids might hear that and be okay, and some kids might decide to act up so you’ll end up leaving your mom’s house. In other words, ODD kids may use that against you. They’d rather leave, so it turns out to be your consequence of leaving.
Sit down and think about what your plan of action will be. You and your spouse might say, “If our child is acting up and we have to leave the holiday gathering, are we going to feel bitter, resentful and angry about that?” And if you are, depending on the situation, you may want to find an alternative—a sitter or another relative’s house, for example—that you can take your child to if he acts out.Your mindset can be: “How can I continue with my plan regardless of how he behaves?”
When you’re judged by others: Let’s say a well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) aunt says, “You really need to get her in hand. You’re spoiling her” when your child acts out. A good slogan to have in your mind when you’re feeling judged or criticized is, “Thank you for your concern. We’re working on it.*
We also recommend that you practice turning it back to where the blame needs to be placed—on your defiant, acting-out, or ODD child. Kim said she used to take it and blame herself until she got creative and learned to put the responsibility and blame where it needed to be. Look at it this way: if your child is choosing to act up, it’s not logical for everyone to look at you; they should be looking at her. People think you need to get your child under control because you’re the parent, but we suggest saying something like, “Wow, I’m really sorry that Zoey embarrassed herself like that. I hope she learns from her behavior.” Or, “I know, I couldn’t believe she did that, either. That must’ve really been embarrassing for her. At least I hope it was embarrassing for her!” You’re putting the focus back where it needs to be and taking it off yourself. You’re also giving yourself a shell and a spine. You’re standing up and saying, “This is my child’s behavior. I did not create this behavior. And I’m trying to deal with it just like you are in the moment.”
One word of caution: You want to be careful that they don’t do this in the middle of a holiday gathering and shame your defiant child. An ODD kid may become angry or embarrassed by what you said, and you’re going to get retaliation that may escalate.
Create Your Holiday: While everyone around you has expectations for how the holiday should go, who says you have to do them exactly the way your family did them, or the way everyone else does it? Sit down and really think about what will work for your family. Is it more peaceful to stay home? Would eliminating some traditions help ease some stress? Maybe you’ll say, “This holiday, we’re not going to Grandma’s. We’re going to have dinner together here at home and watch a funny movie that we choose together.”
Doing something smaller scale might be more reasonable and feel more honest for your family. It’s all about what you can live with. Some people decide to go to family get-togethers anyway and simply suck it up when their kids act out. Other parents say, “We’re not going this year. My sister always criticizes me and my kids, and then I hear about it later. This year we’re just going to have something here at home.” You might even put your plans down on paper ahead of time, just to clarify your thinking on how you want to handle things this year. There is no “one right answer.” Bottom line is, you have to make the best choice for yourself and your family, and it’s going to be individual.
Don’t Cancel Christmas. Let’s say your child has acted out or behaved abominably all year. Maybe your son wrecked the car, or your daughter broke the laptop in a fit of rage. Perhaps parenting your pre-teen is a battle all year round. Many parents threaten to cancel Christmas, Hanukkah, birthdays or other holidays. While we don’t recommend you do that, you can go forward and handle things in a way that feels honest and works for your family.
Instead of punishing your child because he hurt you, you can use this opportunity to teach him better behavior skills. Always think about what happens in real life. Real life dictates that if you’ve destroyed someone’s things, they probably aren’t going to want to spend a lot of money on you. This doesn’t have to be done in a resentful, “Serves you right, this is what you get” kind of way. Rather, it’s simply a natural consequence. You can say, “I love you, you’re my child. This year, I’m going to put the money that I would have spent on you this holiday toward fixing the car that you wrecked.” (You might decide to get your child a few small presents he can open on Christmas morning, but use the rest of the money for repairs.) This is one way you can hold him accountable for his actions. We know this tactic isn’t for everyone, and you have to decide that you can live with this decision, too. It’s one way you can handle the holidays with a kid who’s been destroying your (or his siblings, or the neighbors’) property.
If you decide to do this and tell your child, you have to stick to it because you’ve given that consequence. If you go back on it, you will be sending a mixed message.
Find other ways to give: Remember, you can give in other ways besides giving expensive gifts. If it’s giving that’s important to you, give to people who deserve it. There are so many people in need—not just for material things, but even for someone to sit with them and listen to them. Try doing something that’s going to make you come away feeling like, “This was meaningful for me.” It might even become a tradition that other family members participate in, like serving food at a homeless shelter.
Volunteer at Toys for Tots and help raise money for the kids who aren’t going to have a Christmas at all. If your defiant child says, “I’m not doing that.” You can say, “Well the rest of the family is. This season is a time of giving, and that’s what we feel good about doing, so we’re going to do that.” Maybe they will never participate, but they’ll know it’s your family value.
Let go of expectations. Finally, let go of expectations for how things will go, and of what “should” be. We’ve taken the meaning of the holidays so far out of context. Go to the nuts and bolts of what they really are about. Find small ways to celebrate. Maybe for you that’s just some time where you have a moment to connect to your spirituality. Maybe it’s a best friend that you call to say, “I’m grateful for you.” If you go into the holidays saying “I’m only going to enjoy this time if my child is compliant and behaves,” you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, frustration and anger right off the bat. You have to anticipate that you can’t control your child’s behavior choices. You don’t know how your child is going to respond or act, so ask yourself, “How am I still going to enjoy my holidays? And what kind of a plan can I formulate so that can happen for me?”
Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.