The holiday season is almost upon us, and with the busy-ness of the season, sometimes kids are more prone to tantrums or emotional outbursts.
Here are some strategies for calming your child’s tantrums with skill and confidence, and also for preventing them over the holiday season. The strategies not only help calm your child in-the-moment, they help build the foundation for your kids’ emotional resilience and ability to self-regulate over the long term.
Calming Your Child During a Tantrum
Sometimes, in spite of your best preventative tactics of bringing snacks along and trying to ensure your kids have enough sleep, everything becomes “too much” for your sensitive child at this time of year and she falls apart.
When this happens, remember this key truth for helping your child:
You need to be regulated yourself before you can help your child. And if you learned to repress your emotions as a child, you may need a little help to regulate yourself sometimes.
Your child can calm her emotions only after you’ve calmed yourself. She co-regulates with you (which will eventually lead to learning to self-regulate), from feeling the safety of your own regulated state.
We all learn to regulate from our primary caregiver—so our own ability to regulate our emotions was wired in our brain and nervous system when we were growing up, and especially during the early years.
Because many of us were raised by parents who used punishments or rewards to make us “behave”, we may have shut down our emotions in some instances instead of learning to allow their expression and regulate them.
Needless to say, we can’t learn to regulate our emotions if we’re not expressing them. And if you didn’t learn this, you won’t be able to teach your kids.
But if this is you, don’t worry. We can learn as adults. We just need to know how.
One way to start is to notice how you feel in your body the next time your child has intense emotions.
- Scan your body. What are you aware of?
- If you can take just a moment or two to pay attention to your body sensations rather than your child, you may find some tension or discomfort there. See if you can stay with the sensation(s) for a moment with curiosity.
- Now feel your feet on the ground, and notice the sensations in the places where your body makes contact with the surface under you.
- Once you are feeling calm again, turn your attention to your child:
- Acknowledge how she’s feeling (tired, mad, hungry)
- Allow her to express her emotions, maintaining the safety of your child and others
- Let her know that you know it’s hard, and you’re there for her
- Let her feel the safety and security of your full acceptance, and your trust that she will return to a calm state simply by being seen, heard and accepted by you.
- Do your best to meet any physical needs (sleep, snacks, water)
Our own state of regulation and calm is much more important than we often realize.
Every time we take even a tiny step towards being present with our own emotions and body sensations, we begin to rewire our brain and nervous system, and our kids learn to regulate through being with us while we’re doing it.
When you use these strategies, you can feel confident that you’re not only supporting yourself and your children to learn healthy expression of emotions and how to calm yourselves. You’ll also build stronger connections between you and your children, and role model showing compassion and patience with yourself and your kids in situations where frustration or overwhelm arise.
It’s the key to making your relationships more connected and compassionate during the Christmas season, and every day year-round.
While it’s impossible to prevent all tantrums (we just don’t have that much control!), it is possible to reduce their frequency.
The busy-ness of the Christmas season can be such a hard time to prevent emotional outbursts.
This can be even harder for our sensitive kids, who are more prone to tears, anger and outbursts because they’re easily overstimulated. I experienced this with my son. I remember the tug of war inside myself—between wanting to provide him with the fun and excitement of ALL the holiday season activities, and knowing that saying “no” and staying home sometimes was what he really needed.
It helped me to remember that my family will be most likely to have fond memories of Christmas, or any special season, if our happy times and laughter together outweigh an occasional unavoidable meltdown. Further, if I haven’t had enough sleep and I’m feeling overwhelmed by how much I have to do, I have a much harder time staying calm and being patient with my family. In our family, all of us are sensitive, so that means not planning to attend events every night—even if they look like a lot of fun—and spending a few evenings together at home.
Here are a few tips that I remind myself of every year:
- Give yourself permission to not do everything. Try to create a feeling of spaciousness, by spacing out the more energetic and stimulating activities, and planning quieter evenings in between. This helps your kids, but even more importantly, it helps you. As I’ve mentioned above, your kids need YOU to be calm so they can co-regulate with you.
- Be selective. Occasionally you may need to do something that stretches everyone, especially the youngest or the most sensitive in your family (stay up late to watch an older sibling’s Christmas concert, make a long trip to grandparents’ house). However, if you choose to do that only for a few things that are most important to your family values, your kids (and you) will have more capacity to weather it over the long term.
- Create special holiday feelings by creating traditions of doing lower key activities together at home. These can still be a lot of fun, without the extra stimulation of crowds, bright lights, and extra candy that is sometimes at events. Our favourites:
- playing board games at home,
- lighting the fireplace,
- watching a Christmas movie,
- candles with dinner,
- listening to Christmas stories together (we LOVE Stuart McLean!),
- walking through your neighborhood and looking at Christmas lights,
- having hot chocolate with marshmallows for a treat,
- making gifts or doing art work together,
- doing a puzzle together as a family.
Everyone finds their own balance at a different pace—be sure to tune in to your body and inner knowing and find the rhythm that’s best for you and your family. Give yourself permission to not get caught up in FOMO, fear of missing out, and to say “no” when your family needs it. Ultimately, you want to create happy Christmas memories for your kids and family, and those memories will be happiest when you make choices that enable all of you to get your basic needs met and stay regulated most of the time.