Kids enjoy the snowfallWhen my children were young, they had no interest in visiting with Santa. They liked to stand from a safe distance and watch; sometimes they waved and smiled. They looked up at him in wonder when the Christmas parade rolled through town each December, and they made tons of Santa-themed art projects throughout the season. But they didn’t sit for a Santa photo until they were ready. That was one holiday tradition we decided to skip, which worked well for us.

Year after year, the “Santa fail” photos of screaming toddlers and preschoolers on Santa’s lap flood my social media feeds. Some morning and late-night shows even run segments on these so-called comical moments in parenting. While these photos might seem funny to adults, that probably isn’t the case for the little kid screaming for a rescue from a stranger in a red suit.

No matter which holiday you celebrate, the holiday season is often overwhelming for families and especially for young children. The anticipation alone begins the moment Thanksgiving ends and runs clear through New Year’s Day. Between parties, family commitments, holiday traditions, religious services, and inconsistent schedules, little kids can experience big stress during the holiday season — making the time of year seem less happy and more filled with tantrums.

Simplifying the holidays is a great first step toward to keeping the happy in the season, and it’s also important to take a moment to think about the needs of your family and what you can do to strike a balance during the holiday season.

Set Healthy Boundaries

Many adults feel the pull to meet the needs of extended family during the holidays, which can result in over-committing and exhaustion for everyone. It can be very difficult to decline family invitations, but setting healthy boundaries decreases the chaos of the season and gives families the space they need to enjoy this special time together. “You are not responsible for relatives’ happiness or comfort,” cautions Susan Newman, author of The Book of No. “One person can’t do or be everything for one person in the family. That alone should reduce your stress level when you find yourself in situations that call for no.”

The same goes for close friends. It might feel hard to say no in the moment, but try being open and honest about your limitations with young children.

Take a good look at your holiday invitations and decide where you can free up some space. If attending all family parties is important, can you leave the kids at home with a babysitter for some of the other parties or skip them? Exhaustion will result in meltdowns, and meltdowns make parties and other holiday traditions a lot less fun.

Maintain Your Regular Sleep Schedule

It’s natural to have a couple of late nights due to travel, celebrations, and excitement. It’s also important to adhere to your normal bedtime routine and sleep schedule as much as possible. Even losing ten minutes of sleep a night can add up quickly for toddlers, making them more prone to tantrums, illness and stress. Space out the late nights and allow for plenty of recovery time the following day.

Adjust Your Expectations

We all want to make the holiday season as wondrous as possible for our children so remember to take into account your kids’ developmental levels when planning outings and traditions. Toddlers aren’t quite ready for long, action-packed days. They need downtime, naps, and outside play, too.

ZERO TO THREE conducted a large-scale parent survey and found a significant expectation gap between what parents think their children are capable of mastering and what science shows they can actually master. The disconnect between what parents believe children are capable of regarding self-control and what they actually are capable of is particularly important. Toddlers haven’t yet mastered self-control and self-regulation. When they are hungry, tired, or over-stimulated, they will most likely fall apart. It’s how they alert their parents that they need help.

Pack a Coping Kit

If you can’t avoid long travel days, late nights, and a busy holiday schedule, you can still plan for it! Toddlers are attached to loveys, specific toys, and certain books because these things make them feel safe when they’re upset or overwhelmed. This season, try packing a coping kit for your little one when you know you have a long day (or night) ahead. This might look like

  • A favorite lovey or blanket
  • A favorite small toy
  • Crayons and paper
  • Bubbles to relieve stress
  • Favorite snacks and plenty of water
  • A well-loved book

Let Them Release Their Emotions

Tantrums should not be met with consequences or yelling. Tantrums are actually a healthy release of pent-up emotions, and your child needs to let out those negative emotions. Hold your child close, whisper empathic responses, and offer comfort items to recover.

Parents ask a lot of their little ones during the holiday season. It’s not realistic for toddlers (or anyone) to be happy and grateful all of the time. Plan carefully and be willing to change your plans if need be. When parents make efforts to slow down and simplify, the holiday season can be quite happy for the whole family.

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