great tips for avoiding holiday meltdowns

While most adults know how to verbalize and communicate feelings of stress, many children don’t. Instead of running to parents for help when feeling overwhelmed, for example, they tend to throw a frustration-induced tantrum…right in the middle of that family dinner.

Teaching kids how to manage and cope with their feelings of frustration can reduce episodes of tantrums while empowering kids to understand and communicate their emotional needs. Try a few of these strategies to reduce frustration and increase happiness this holiday season:

Get back to basics.
Balance is the key to reducing family stress when life gets busy. You don’t have to attend every party or partake in every holiday ritual that brought you happiness as a child. The truth is that all families are different, and all families need to find the balance that works for their individual needs. Be sure to ask yourself these questions during busy days to stay on top of your family’s basic needs:

  • Is my child getting enough sleep?
  • Is my child eating enough healthy foods?
  • Is my child drinking enough water?
  • Does my child have enough time to sit down and play?
  • Am I leaving enough time for downtime?

Children need to sleep, eat, play and unwind. When we push them to their limits, we don’t fill some of their basic needs, and that leads to stress and frustration.

Understand temperament.
Kids truly do have individual needs. My daughter can keep going and going until she finally drops, but my son needs plenty of downtime during the day to recharge as he goes.

It’s important to understand how a child’s temperament affects his ability to cope with overwhelming situations. If your child craves solitary playtime, for example, be sure to bring a few small toys and find a quiet corner where they can recharge. If your child doesn’t know how to slow down until she collapses in a puddle of tears of exhaustion, take breaks from the action to sit and hold hands while chatting quietly.

Teach frustration management skills.
Frustration management might sound like big words for little kids, but the earlier we teach them to recognize and manage their own emotions, the sooner we prepare them to cope with the ups and downs of life. Try a few of these tips:

  • Feelings faces charts: Many children simply don’t know how to make the connection between what they feel and the emotions they display. They fall apart because it’s the only thing they know how to do. Feelings faces charts (homemade or store bought) are great tools for families with kids of all ages. The more openly we talk about emotions, the more frequently our children will actually label and seek help with their big feelings.
  • Create a mad list: Kids need help getting their feelings out. What might seem insignificant to an adult can feel really huge to a small child. Ask your child to label all the things that make him feel mad and write them down. Then have your child tear the list to shreds while saying, “Bye, mad feelings!”
  • Color your world: I like to give kids a blank sheet of paper and ask them to attach one feeling to each color. Let them choose. As my son likes to point out, blue is relaxing to him. Blue isn’t always sad. Then ask your child to color the page with all of her feelings at the moment. If she feels mostly happy, she should color a good portion of the page her happy color. Do this exercise with your child so that you can illustrate the fact that we don’t usually feel 100 percent at all times.
  • Try calming sensory activities: Sometimes kids need help figuring out where to put that pent-up emotion. Sand play, mud pies, water play, blowing bubbles, clay, and finger painting can all provide physical relief from internalized frustration.

Pack a portable coping kit.
Long days and nights are a recipe for frustration, but sometimes we can’t get around those experiences. Pack a portable coping kit in case frustration strikes and you can’t leave the situation.

  • A favorite toy or blanket for physical comfort
  • Play dough to work out physical stress
  • Calming music and headphones to take a break from overstimulation
  • Coloring books and crayons to engage in a relaxing activity
  • A stress ball to squeeze out stress
  • Bubbles to tap into relaxation breathing

When in doubt, pile on the empathy and give tons of hugs and kisses. When we reframe our own thoughts to view tantrums as an expression of emotion instead of an act of defiance, we are better able to help our children learn to work through their stress and frustration when the going gets tough.

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  • Martha Pieper

    These are all good suggestions. When the meltdown occurs, though, it is so important to use an approach I call Loving Regulation, which means helping the child get past the meltdown without negative responses like time-outs or “consequences.” Children learn by imitation so it is an important lesson if parents respond to their unhappiness by managing their behavior with love and compassion. For strategies for applying Loving Regulation at every age and stage see: Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating, and Enjoying Your Child.

  • Buster