The holidays are a special time for many, but they can also be a time of heightened stress and unexpected upheaval. If you feel the holidays taking a toll, know you’re not alone (we’re right there with ya’!). Between disruptions like traveling or hosting, the pressures of decorating and gift-giving, and the emotional labor of navigating extended family dynamics, the holidays don’t always feel like the most wonderful time of the year.
It’s easy to assume our little ones are immune to holiday stress—that they’re caught up in the magic of the holiday and oblivious to the oftentimes hectic pace of the season. In reality, it’s more likely they are right there with you feeling a bit disoriented. Children rely on their daily routines and structures to feel safe and secure throughout their week. When the holiday season hits, all kinds of things in a child’s life change. Routines are turned upside down and people who aren’t a part of your little one’s daily life are suddenly coming and going. Even the exciting things—like presents, holiday decorations, and playing with cousins—can lead to overstimulation. And as we all know, overstimulation can lead to some pretty big meltdowns.
Just like you might need a 10-minute walk to step away for a mini-meltdown of your own, your child could probably use a little support as well. Here are some of the ways you can help make the holidays a little less disruptive for both you and your little one:
Prepare your child for change: Give your little ones a heads up to changes they can expect to see in their regular routine. Whether it’s right before bedtime or in the morning when your child wakes up, noting upcoming changes to the routine (i.e. visitors coming, big holiday dinners, etc.) will help them prepare for what is coming next. Similarly, it also helps to let them know what will continue to be the same (i.e. breakfast, naptime, etc.).
“Hey sweetie, remember what we are doing today? First, we’ll have breakfast,
then we’ll play, and then we’ll have lunchtime followed by a nap like we usually
After naptime, your aunt, uncle, and cousins will be here. We’ll have a big
dinner together and then more time to play!”
Maintain routines where you can: This is easier said than done. After all, your little one isn’t the only one whose schedule feels out of whack! If you can swing it, try to keep routines as close to normal as possible during the holidays—particularly nap and meal schedules. This small effort will go a long way toward keeping everyone calm--and that includes you, Mom!
Plan to take breaks: Little ones need a break from all the excitement sometimes (don’t we all!), so it’s important to be on the lookout for signs that they may be crashing. If it looks like your kiddo is feeling overstimulated, it can be helpful to take them out of a crowded or noisy space and into a quieter area. You might even designate a quiet corner and encourage your child to let you know if they need some time. This will give your little one a chance to calm down while also giving you a moment to step away and catch your own breath.
Lessen the chaos of gift-giving: For children, gifts are pretty high on the list of things to love about the holidays. But loads of presents can be very overwhelming for children to open all at once. We are big fans of intentional gift-giving, but sometimes as caregivers, we can’t help but want to shower our little ones with presents. If there are lots of packages to unwrap, consider breaking them up throughout the day. Going through one present at a time will give your child a chance to experience more gratitude with each gift while reducing the potential for overstimulation. Plus, it makes the experience last longer!
Practice respectful gift-receiving: If there’s one thing you have to really admire about children, it’s their honesty. But when it comes to receiving gifts, sometimes that honesty (i.e. “I don’t like this!”) can be hurtful to the gifter. It’s important to remember that your young child is just now learning about their own feelings in addition to the feelings of those around them, so patience is a much kinder response than frustration. Manners are complex and often unspoken rules and can be challenging even for many adults. Going over expectations with children before they open presents can reinforce respectful gift-getting behavior.
“When we open presents today, it’s polite to start by opening the card first so you can see who gave it to you. Once you open the present, it’s important to say ‘thank you.’ Sometimes we get gifts that we don’t like very much, but we still want to say ‘thank you’ because it’s kind to show someone gratitude when they give you a gift. Do you have any questions about that?”
If your little one misses the mark, it’s only because they’re still trying to get the hang of these tricky social rules. Help them out by reminding them of the discussion you had earlier in the day. Depending on how old they are, you might encourage them to approach the gifter and express their gratitude. If it feels necessary, you could even step in and let the gift giver know you’re working on polite manners when opening gifts and that you greatly appreciate the gesture.
Respect boundaries and consent: Hugs aren’t for everyone, and that’s perfectly okay. One way you can teach your child and extended family members about the importance of consent and boundaries this holiday season is by allowing your child to decide if or when they give or receive affection. This reinforces an important message to your little one that their body is their own and their feelings are valid. If someone comes in and asks for a hug, but your child is looking visibly uncomfortable, it’s okay to let that person know your kiddo’s not in the mood for a hug. Giving your little one a choice, and letting them know that whatever they choose is perfectly acceptable, is a lesson that keeps on giving long after the holiday season comes to an end. Perhaps a wave, a high five or just a hello is what your kiddo is comfortable with, and that is completely fine!
And remember, it’s okay if your holidays are not picture perfect—because that’s real life! When all else fails, a quick cry in the bathroom or a call to your best friend can keep your holiday light from fading.