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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices

Holiday Meltdowns are Predictable and Important

Holiday time is approaching.  Ramadan, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas create a time of year with lots of opportunities and challenges.  Here are a few thoughts to put in your back pocket as the holidays approach.

When any holiday or birthday rolls toward a family, it puts extra demands and stress on the parents, and the children tend to become infected with stress too.  They get less relaxed time with us, and have more expectations of "good behavior" put on them in stores, at homes they're not familiar with, and among people they may not know well.  It's no wonder that feelings ride higher for us all!

Children tend to do the very best they can to cooperate and to flex.  Then, they hit "the wall."  They can't go another moment without exploding in feelings.  These meltdowns often happen in public places, when the family gathers, or at some other highly inconvenient time for you, the parent. This is THE WAY THINGS ARE with all young children, not just with your young children.  It's almost a law of physics--a special event means that big feelings will erupt in public.  Either a sibling will touch a sacred toy, or a spill of juice will bring a huge cry, or who sits next to whom at Thanksgiving will be the cause for a tantrum.  It happens in EVERY family, EVERY holiday, because it must.  Children full of tension just have to let it out.  Their systems have this built-in "emotion ejection system" built especially for the moments when they just can't think any longer.  When they're done releasing the bad feelings, they can be reasonable, thoughtful, and flexible again!

It helps immensely to be prepared.  Just as you are in the habit of preparing yourself for the quirks in your relatives' behavior, you can prepare to handle your child's meltdown.  When you see that things are getting tense, you can move TOWARD the tension, instead of away from it. (You set yourself up for disappointment every time you think, "maybe this time, he'll calm down all by himself.")  You can move TOWARD a tense child to play with him for 5 or 10 minutes before leaving for Grandma's, eliciting as much laughter as you can (without tickling), so he feels more connected to you, and regains his sense that life is good.   Or you can gently but firmly set a limit if his behavior has already gone off-track.  After you set the limit, stay with him and gently assist him to release the upset through crying or tantrums.  Hold the limit and, at the same time, love the child.  What children need is simple.  They need the chance to have the cry, express the disappointment, do the tantrum, or laugh a good while.  When they're done, they can feel your love, notice the needs of the people around them, and show their genius for loving and living life well.  Their need to cry is as wholesome as their need for sleep--it's one of the things that keeps their minds in good working order.  They're not crying to embarrass or manipulate, they're crying to offload bad feelings so they can feel better again.  The fact that the meltdown happens in public often means that life has been going so fast in private that they couldn't find a way to catch your attention there.

When others criticize (which is something you also can depend upon) you don't need to buy into their worry or disapproval of you and your child. You can think ahead of time about what you want to say.  "Well, at least he's doing a good job of getting this out!  We'll go into the back room so you don't all have to hear about it."  Or, "She's been needing me to listen to her all day!"  Or, "This will be over in a little while.  Save some pie for us!"

We parents need to remember that we need some time to laugh hard and cry, too, when we're hemmed in by holiday expectations we can't possibly meet. When you don't have a listener handy, it can work to play music that moves you, get time on the phone with a friend, or rent a movie you know lets you cry.  Your mind will release the tensions that pinch, no matter what way you find to acknowledge that you need some meltdown time too.


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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