The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and family togetherness. So why do you end up feeling so stressed, exhausted and overwhelmed? Why is it also a time when so many kids act their worst? Most importantly, how can you make the upcoming holiday season a more calm and peaceful one—even if you have a child who frequently misbehaves and acts out? Debbie Pincus, the creator of The Calm Parent AM & PM program, has worked with parents and families for decades, helping them find that sense of balance and calm during even the most stressful times—and she has real solutions for you, too.
The expectation is that our children should look good and behave well—and when this doesn’t happen, we can start to feel like we’re somehow failing as parents.
Our culture tells us that the holidays are supposed to be happy, peaceful, loving times. But we also know that the “supposed to’s”–in other words, all the expectations that go along with this time of year—carry a lot of pressure with them. The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, fun, connection, and love. We feel compelled to choose the perfect gifts, spend money, cook delicious meals, and decorate our homes with utmost care. Along with that pressure comes an increase in family togetherness, which often adds to the friction in the house. And the other expectation is that our children should look good and behave well—and when this doesn’t happen, we can start to feel like we’re somehow failing as parents.
Anxiety is the key culprit here, because feeling anxious and reacting to our anxiety leads to “reactivity.” That’s when you lose it and yell at your kids without pausing to think first and then respond. For most of us, being reactive to each other during this peak time of year goes against our ideal image of ourselves and our family, only adding more fuel to the fire.
As a result, you’ll probably feel irritable and overwhelmed. To manage those bad feelings, you might start blaming your kids or judging yourself or your spouse. Perhaps you’re particularly anxious about how your kids will behave when your parents are in town, for example. Your tension is already high before they even arrive, and your children pick up on your anxiety and react to it by acting out. This causes you to lose it with your kids—right about the moment your parents walk through the door and look at you with judgment in their eyes.
It’s important to understand that anxiety is highly contagious in families. Even happy events can cause stress—and feelings of stress can spread like wildfire if we let them get out of control. For instance, if you come from a family that doesn’t feel too comfortable with its family members being too much of their own individuals, you might hear comments dropped at family gatherings such as, “Why do you let your daughter walk all over you? Your sister would never put up with that.” Statements like these can cause shame, embarrassment, frustration and anger. You might manage that intensity by losing it and yelling at your daughter, by withdrawing and keeping quiet, by getting into someone else’s box, or by deflecting your feelings of stress onto a third person. Unfortunately, the ways in which we try to manage the anxiety usually increase the tension.
Parents often ask me, “How can I manage to enjoy the holidays when I have so much to do and my kids are acting out in front of relatives?” But instead of pulling out techniques to keep your kids in line, I want you to ask yourself an entirely different question this year, and that question is, “How might I contribute—not cause, but contribute—to my child’s acting out behavior?”
- Do I buy into expectations that over-stress my family?
- Do I tend to become over-controlling and bossy when stressed?
- Do I take on too much responsibility for everyone’s good time and happiness, inadvertently causing stress?
- Do I take on too much and not ask for enough help?
Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is, “What do I need to get control over my own behavior at these times? What do I need to change in myself that will create more calm and peace inside of me?” The truth is, if you can get yourself under control and take responsibility for your anxiety levels, that feeling will spread to your family members—and you’ll probably experience less anger and defiance from your kids, as well.
So what can you do to achieve this calm? Here are some steps to follow this holiday season.
1. Remind yourself that your child’s behavior is not ultimately a reflection of you. When you think everything your child does is a reflection of you and your parenting, you will probably work to control them, which will cause them to be reactive to you. If you stop trying to manage your child’s misbehavior, they won’t be so busy resisting your efforts. Instead of trying to control him, give him consequences for his behavior and hold him accountable.
2. Try to keep to normal routines as much as possible. During the holidays, it’s easy for your kids to become over-stimulated. They’re tired from all the activity and lack of routine, have probably eaten more sweets or spent too much time with siblings around the holiday season. As best you can, try to keep routines in place. Remember, the same rules apply.
3. Ask family members for help in planning and preparing. Make your children feel like they’re an integral part of the events taking place, rather than a thorn in your side. Give them responsibilities and have them do some of the planning and the work involved in getting everything ready.
4. Learn to say “no.” Don’t let other people’s expectations push you to extremes or into doing too much or too little. Let go of the expectations and the “supposed to’s” and create your own criteria that make sense for your family at this time in your life. Maybe this year you simply won’t buy presents for everyone and will decide instead to pick names out of a hat. Or maybe you’ll just skip some of the seasonal events that aren’t fun anymore.
5. Don’t make the holidays a free pass for bad behavior. If your kids are misbehaving, hold them accountable to better behavior as you would at any time of the year. Provide the consequences that you know are right for them, even if grandparents or aunts and uncles are suggesting “better” ways of disciplining them. If you have done the honest work of looking at yourself and the real needs of your children, then you’ll know how to best discipline them—even if others want to impose their way.
6. Listen to yourself and don’t get sidetracked. Make it your number one commitment to not lose your cool no matter how others are behaving. You’ll feel better and will be the anchor that provides calm for all. You don’t have to hope for a good holiday season—you can decide to make it a good holiday season by recognizing that your good time is up to you and no one else. You can decide how you will behave, no matter how others behave. Of course, by making “keeping your cool” a number one priority, you’ll create a calm that will be contagious.
7. Have some slogans you can say to yourself to help you get through the stress. You might say, “Just let it go,” or “This too will pass,” or “It’s not personal.” Try to swap negative thoughts that may come up with one of these slogans.
8. Be clear. Be clear about what you expect from family members. You should also be clear about what you are and aren’t responsible for. Don’t over function for others as a way to manage your stress and then resent others because you feel burdened. Focus on yourself. Define your own expectations that make sense for you and your family.
9. All is not lost, even if you lose it. Let’s say your child starts an argument with you when you’re out shopping or cooking a meal for your family. You’ve had enough, and you lose it and start screaming. What can you say to yourself after that happens to get back on track? Start by letting yourself know that it’s okay and understandable to lose your temper. There’s a lot of stress at this time of year. Give yourself a break and get right back on track. Be self-compassionate and check in with yourself. Ask yourself if you’re doing too much and buying into expectations that you actually don’t want to be doing.
10. Take time to try something new. The holidays can be a wonderful time to get to know your family. Try to see them through fresh eyes. Tell them about yourself and listen to them without needing anything in return. Think of some things you’re grateful for, and share your list with your family. It might be something small, like the fact that you can share a meal together, or spend time together over the holiday—or that you were able to get through your day without a fight.
It’s important to understand that we all carry expectations with us for the holidays. That stress spills onto our kids, who already may have behavior problems. They end up reacting to our anxiety by act outing and misbehaving. Let’s say you have a kid who is really defiant, acts out, and embarrasses you in front of the relatives. Perhaps you’re dreading the holidays, because you’re sure he’s going to embarrass you again this year. Just keep in mind, again, that your child is not necessarily a reflection of you. If he’s really acting out at a family gathering, instead of reacting by yelling or withdrawing, you might say, “I’m sorry for the disruption. He’s having a hard time right now and hasn’t quite learned skills to better handle his stress. We’re working on it.”
The bottom line is that there will be much more positive family togetherness this season if you pause and think about how you want to respond to your child—and to zingers from extended family members.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.