(Sleigh bells ringing.) “What fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight!”
Oh, the joys of the Christmas season! Mostly. It does bring some challenges for our kids. Families are a little like finely tuned machines. Anytime our families’ schedules get altered, the routines we rely on as oil become sporadic, and the machines get gummed up a bit. Christmas break can be a lot of fun, but without the comfortable old routine, it can be more like a roller coaster for your kids. They may be wondering: “When will my day start? What am I supposed to do today? How come Mom keeps checking her phone? When will the cookies be done?” And on the list goes.
While these are small changes, they add up fast and can wear your children out quickly. Before you’ve even gotten out of your pajamas, one’s already having a meltdown. Your child has lost it. Another way to put this is he is having difficulty with “self-regulation.”
Self-regulation is the ability to control your emotions. Many kids struggle with impulsive and inappropriate behavior over the holiday season because of all the irregularities in their routine. If your child is having trouble adjusting to the new expectations and stimuli in his environment, he’ll need to find a way to regulate himself and calm down rather than resorting to a meltdown.
You can help him learn to direct and regulate his behavior, so he can get what he needs despite the unpredictability that’s inherent in the holiday season. So, what are some things you can do? Lots. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
- Plan out each day, so your child has an idea of what to expect. The day’s plan shouldn’t be rigid and cause more stress though. It should merely be an outline of events your child will know are likely to happen for the day. The goal is to help your child relax into the day because he’ll know what’s coming up. A plan for the day will also help him remain calm when some things on the loose schedule don’t happen, or when unplanned events (like burnt cookies) do.
- Consider reducing the number of events in a day. We all tend to underestimate how long it takes to complete various tasks. You may want to swing by your friend’s house on another day because grocery shopping and wrapping gifts might be all that your child can handle today.
- Use clocks and timers to help your child get a better sense of when things will happen. Setting a timer allows your child to see the time elapse as the cookies bake or that there are 30 minutes until it’s time to watch the Christmas movie. This helps him deal better with his excitement.
- Watch behavior closely. Some kids show distress long before they have an outburst or lose self-control. Once you see your child starting to struggle with self-regulation, start the conversation on how to help him calm himself and get back in charge of his brain. For example, you see him purse his lips after his older sister makes an offhanded comment about his leaving the milk out. This is the time, when his brain is still online and able to think, to comfort him with the thought that a lot of exciting things are going on and our brains are more prone to forget something small like putting the milk away. You might also ask him how his body is feeling. Is there tightness or an uncomfortable feeling? If so, encourage a gross motor activity like running up and down the stairs five times to help him release that tense feeling.
- Be flexible. If your child is showing signs of distress, shorten the activity and get him home to a quieter, more predictable environment or find a less stimulating spot so he can have some time to regroup.
- Plan a calming, nightly read-aloud of Christmas stories for a half hour before bedtime.
These are just some examples of how parents can help by becoming an “external” self-regulator for their child.
Your child is not a bad kid. He just needs a little help over the holidays because his routine has changed dramatically. So, while you don’t want your child to become overly dependent on you, a wise mom understands that the Christmas break puts significantly more stress on a child’s self-regulating system and knows it’s her job to step in and provide this needed, extra support.
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