How to Manage Tantrums, Misbehavior, and Meltdowns During the Holidays

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pouting child in Santa hat

If you have a child or teen who misbehaves, the holidays can be a source of infinite stress and anxiety. Your expectations of the holidays can be seriously at odds with your child’s expectations.

You expect to have a nice, shared time with your immediate family. And you may attend some larger family gatherings. Meanwhile, your kids expect to get every gift they demand, and they intend to spend their school break staying up late, sleeping in, and playing video games.

The resulting holiday season can be filled with tantrums, obnoxious behavior, and lots of yelling and screaming.

As an added stress, your child’s behavior is suddenly on display for everyone to see. Sometimes you might even feel like it’s just better for everyone if you skip those family events. After all, you don’t want your parents or your in-laws to see how out of control things have become.

It’s no wonder many parents dread the holidays.

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The Cause of Bad Behavior (It’s Not What You Think)

The reason kids misbehave during the holidays is the same reason they misbehave during the rest of the year. The holidays just seem worse because inappropriate child behavior is often felt most acutely by parents during family gatherings and holidays.

So why do kids misbehave? James Lehman in The Total Transformation Program® child behavior program explains that kids act out when they don’t know how to solve the basic problems of life. These problems include, among other things, dealing with stress, frustration, and not getting your way.

And the holidays can give all of us a lot more of these problems to solve, which is why behavioral problems can seem more intense during these times.

For example, let’s say your son doesn’t want to go to Grandma’s house for dinner. Instead, he wants to stay home and play video games. So he acts out and gets angry.

His problem is that he wants to stay home. And he attempts to solve that problem using a tool he hopes might work, and indeed may have worked in the past: he yells and screams that he doesn’t want to go.

Sometimes it’s the break in routine that sets a kid off, or the holiday excitement or expectation, and they simply don’t know how to handle that stress. Or for younger kids, there’s anxiety about doing something right or wrong to get this toy or that game. But when kids don’t know how to handle their problems appropriately, they’ll use every inappropriate trick in the book to get their way.

These kids need to learn better ways to manage these problems. And they learn these better ways by being held accountable for their current behaviors and, at the same time, by being coached on how to behave more appropriately in the future.

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Obnoxious Behavior Persists Because It’s Rewarded

One way kids try to solve their problems is by being obnoxious—whining, crying, and yelling. The truth is, obnoxious behavior often works. Parents will give in to what their child wants just to make the obnoxious behavior stop. And when you give in to obnoxious behavior, even just once in a while, it ensures that the behavior will continue.

James Lehman stresses that if you sometimes give in to misbehavior, then that behavior becomes a tool your kid will try again and again. Each time he tries the behavior, he hopes it works. And it works just often enough for him to keep on trying. In other words, his bad behavior is rewarded just enough to make it worth the effort.

This phenomenon is known by behavioral psychologists as intermittent reinforcement and it’s a powerful force. Intermittent reinforcement is what makes slot machines, scratch-off tickets, and other types of gambling addicting. Even though you don’t get rewarded every time with a slot machine, the rewards come just often enough to keep you playing the game.

Indeed, kids will treat parents like a slot machine by behaving obnoxiously in the hopes that they will be rewarded. And even if their obnoxious behavior gets rewarded only 1 time in 5, they keep playing because that’s often enough to reinforce the behavior.

Bad Behavior Is How Kids Control Their Parents

Remember that no matter what the issue is, at its core, your child has a problem he is trying to solve. Does yelling solve the problem? He might think, “If I get mad and throw things, will that keep me from having to go to Grandma’s house? If it worked once, I’m going to try it again.”

Do you see how that works? James Lehman calls this anger with an angle. Not only do some kids use emotional outbursts to solve their anger or irritation, but they train their parents to be extra careful around them by threatening an outburst.

Eventually, these kids only have to threaten an outburst to get their way. These are households where the child is in charge. And when the child is in charge, the holidays and most of the other days don’t go well.

Are You Walking on Eggshells Around Your Child?

If you find yourself walking on eggshells around your child just to keep things quiet, you’re not alone. Sometimes, you’re just plain tired, and giving in feels like the easiest solution. Starting right now, though, you can begin to take your power back and stop tiptoeing around your child.

Whatever the problem is, remember that your role as a parent is to help your child learn appropriate ways to solve problems. And your role is also to hold your child accountable for her behavior and decisions.

Understand that your rules and expectations help your child build the skills needed to be successful in life. Indeed, learning to control your temper when things don’t go your way is one of the most important life skills you can teach your child. If your child doesn’t learn to cope with not getting her way, she will struggle as an adult.

It doesn’t matter if obnoxious behavior is a once-a-year problem or a constant daily struggle. The reality is that kids need to learn how to solve their problems in appropriate ways all year-round.

Getting Control This Holiday Season

If your child’s behavior gets out of control around the holidays, here are some things you might try:

  1. Stick with your routine as much as possible. Sometimes just keeping the familiar rhythm of life can help lessen the anxiety that can come with excitement and over-stimulation. As much as possible, try to stick to your normal routine.
  2. Be clear about your family’s approach to the holidays. Go over the rules and expectations before you get into a tough situation. This might include how you will handle requests for certain things, what you expect in terms of attendance at family events, etc.
  3. Plan things that your child actually wants. Let her know there is time for her interests during the holidays. You might even ask your child what his ideal holiday would be. Are there places you can compromise?
  4. Be clear about your expectations and be clear about the rules. You can issue a calm statement like, “Just because you don’t want to go tonight doesn’t mean you get to throw things and yell at me. I know you’re not happy about going to Grandma’s for dinner. This is something we’re going to do as a family, and you’ll need to find appropriate ways to handle your irritation.”
  5. Teach your child self-control. Self-control is a skill your child can learn. Help your child identify the things she can do to manage her feelings, not just the things she can’t do. Give her some examples, and encourage her to come up with some of her own. Self-control is a skill, and like any other, it can be learned and needs to be practiced as much as possible. Give your child the opportunity to practice this skill in small, bite-sized pieces if possible.
  6. Use rewards. Help your child practice new skills by tying it to something he wants. It doesn’t need to be a big thing, it just needs to be something he personally cares about. Remember that your child is motivated by what he wants, not by what you want.
  7. Use effective consequences. While it’s tempting to tell your child that he won’t get any gifts, that approach is not effective in changing behavior. Don’t take away anything that can’t be earned back. For more on effective consequences, read James Lehman’s article How to Give Kids Consequences That Work.
  8. Stay calm. Kids know how to push your buttons. As James and Janet Lehman say, “Kids watch you for a living—that’s their job. And they know what works.” Try to take a deep breath before you react. Not only will you help yourself stay calm, but you’re also modeling self-control for your child. Show them how it’s done. This is a good way to take good care of yourself during the holiday season and beyond.
  9. Walk away. Remember that arguing during an angry outburst only adds fuel to the fire. But because you have prepared in advance, you can simply state your expectations, prompt your child to calm themselves down, and then walk away. Don’t let your child draw you into an argument.

Conclusion

It may take a while, but through your calm and clear role-modeling, your child will learn that angry outbursts won’t work with you any longer.

The truth is, change is hard, and it’s going to take time. Just be consistent, hold your child accountable, and coach them on how to behave. Your family’s holidays and all year-round will be better as a result of your efforts.

And your child will be happier and better prepared for life.

Notes and References

About

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former Empowering Parents Parent Coach, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.

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