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 better for everyone if you skip those family events. After all, you don’t want your parents or in-laws to see how out of control things have become.
It’s no wonder many parents dread the holidays.
The reason kids misbehave during the holidays is the same reason they misbehave during the rest of the year. The holidays 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 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 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.
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 to stop the obnoxious behavior. And when you give in to obnoxious behavior, even 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 they try the behavior, they hope it works. And it works often enough for them to keep on trying. In other words, their bad behavior is rewarded 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 with a slot machine every time, the rewards come often enough to keep you playing the game.
Indeed, kids will treat parents like slot machines by behaving obnoxiously in the hopes that they will be rewarded. And even if their obnoxious behavior gets rewarded only one time in five, they keep playing because that’s often enough to reinforce the behavior.
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? They 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 other days don’t go well.
If you find yourself walking on eggshells around your child to keep things quiet, you’re not alone. Sometimes, you’re just 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 their behavior and decisions.
Understand that your rules and expectations help your child build the skills to succeed. 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 their way, they will struggle as adults.
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 appropriately all year.
If your child’s behavior gets out of control around the holidays, here are some things you might try:
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 will take time. Therefore, 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.
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.