The holidays can be an exciting time for children. They are often lucky enough to be sheltered from the holiday stress that adults experience, and their joy can be uninhibited as they look forward to all the joy the season has to offer. However, excitement can be a big and overwhelming feeling for little ones. It often involves waiting, and as they say, waiting is not easy.
I can remember multiple times last holiday season when my son, three years old at the time, was lying in bed, four weeks before Christmas, crying out, “I just can’t sleep! I’m so excited for Christmas to come!” Sorry kiddo, it’s only November. It’s going to be a long four weeks. Like many kiddos, he was struggling to cope with the big excitement of what was to come.
Children lack the emotional regulation skills they need to cope with difficult feelings like frustration, but even enjoyable feelings like excitement as well. Understanding the passing of time and learning how to cope with waiting are other skills our children are still learning. So how do we help our little ones cope with the excitement of the holidays when it gets in the way of sleep or other things in life that need to get done? Here are a few steps to keep in mind that can help them build the emotional regulation skills they need.
Step 1: Name the Wish
Example: “You are so excited about getting presents this holiday that you wish it could happen now!”
Naming emotions can help children better understand what they are feeling. Identifying the feeling is one of the first steps in emotional regulation. Also, when you reflect children's feelings and accurately name them, children feel understood. Feeling understood helps people, children and adults alike, better regulate their emotions. This is an important first step.
Step 2: State the Limit
Example: “We won’t be able to have presents until the holiday comes. That’s a rule that doesn’t change no matter how much we want it to.”
Sometimes children hope that the limits we have set will change. I know that’s what my son was hoping for when he was lying in bed thinking about the presents he wanted. It was important for him that I restated the limit to remind him that it wouldn’t change. This allows children to move from the “hoping and wishing” to accepting the limit and allowing feelings to be expressed.
Step 3: Allow Feelings and Empathize
Example: “It’s really hard to wait. I get that. It’s okay to be sad about that.”
Once you’ve stated the limit clearly, it’s likely that a child will have more sadness or frustration to express. This is a good sign! Way to go—you are helping your child get through this tough moment. Expressing emotion means that they understand the limit won’t change and they are allowing themselves to feel disappointed about that. You can continue to label feelings here and empathize with them. Give some space for them to express their feelings. Don’t try to change their mind or “make it okay.” It’s important for children to learn that disappointment is okay, and that they can tolerate it (another key learning for emotional regulation).
Step 4: Offer Other Choices (Optional)
Example: “We can’t have presents right now, but tomorrow morning we can write down your wish list together.”
Be careful not to jump into problem solving too quickly, but once it seems like your child is ready to hear an idea, you could offer them something simple like drawing a picture of what they hope for, writing a list of what they are excited about, or even doing something special (perhaps a new art project) the next day. This step is optional. You definitely don’t have to have a solution here, but sometimes letting children know what their choices ARE, can help them feel more empowered. It’s hard being a kid—adults get to make lots of decisions for them.
These steps, in all honesty, are not going to stop your child from having a hard time waiting, because developmentally they aren’t there yet. In fact, sometimes adults have a hard time waiting. But what these tips will do is help children slowly build the emotional regulation skills they need to become better at waiting and coping with their excitement in the future. If, however, the excitement is not getting in their way and they can still sleep, eat, and play without disturbance—bring it on! How awesome is it that children can enjoy this time of year with such vigor? We could all learn a little something from them about embracing the positive aspects of the holidays.
If you’d like to learn more about emotional regulation check out our creature collections to help build a foundation of emotional wellness.