Christmas can be stressful for any family, but perhaps you experience one particular child always seems to be the cause of an upset at times when you most want to be relaxing and having fun. I’ve put together some guidance on how to avoid meltdown at Christmas by understanding your child’s temperament.
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Jane gazes into the fire, exhausted.
Her daughter’s sobs still hiccup from under the blanket where she’d hidden.
Her hubby has taken himself to the kitchen, but the angry clatter of dishes make it clear he’s uptight too.
The grandparents and guests comment on the crisp weather, which shop stocks the best Christmas pudding, how the evenings are closing in. Polite conversation – trying to ignore the strain in the air that’s as sharp as the winter wind that has frozen the pavements and car windshields outside.
Why – oh why – does Christmas always end up with my child having a meltdown!
Understanding Your Child’s Temperament
Perhaps you can relate to Jane’s experience. At times you may even wonder,
“Why can’t I handle my child’s behaviour?” or “Am I a bad parent?”
But then why are the meltdowns always with this one child, while life goes pretty smoothly with your other kids! Here’s the elusive factor we need to grasp if we want a different outcome:
a child’s reactive behaviour and meltdowns are intertwined with our child’s temperament.
Some children’s unique blend of temperament traits can make them more inclined to “difficult behaviour”. Does that mean you can’t do anything about it?
The good news is very often you can make a big difference to the outcome, once you respond to who your child uniquely is, rather than trying to control their behaviour. In particular, it’s helpful to realise that a child with a high level of these particular temperament traits will probably need extra support to cope with the surprises and stresses of the festive season.
You might also enjoy reading 5 Key Tips for What to Do When Your Child is Acting Out
Your Child’s Temperament Traits That Can Be Most Challenging
You’ll notice this in a child who doesn’t easily “go with the flow”; who experiences everything as either “awesome ” or “the worst thing that could ever happen,” rather than being able to find the middle ground.
This is the child who doesn’t cope well with anything being different, so having exuberant visitors arrive, or going to someone else’s home for the festive meal, can feel overwhelming and cause a strong first reaction.
A child with a high activity level can be challenging to handle at any time, but add to this the excitement of Christmas, and added sugar levels from rich festive food, and your child could well be heading for a meltdown.
These temperament traits are discussed by Mary Gordon in her insightful book “Roots of Empathy – changing the world child by child”.
You might also enjoy reading 3 Traps Parents Fall Into When A Child is Disappointed in Christmas
Ten Tips to Avoid Meltdown at Christmas
#1. Identify Your Child’s Temperament Traits
Some children don’t deal well with the excitement of the festive season, but if you know your child’s unique temperament traits, it will be easier to figure out how to respond in a helpful way. Even simple things, like lowering sugar for a high-activity child, can make a huge difference. For more advice on how to understand your child’s temperament see my video playlist: “How to Understand and Respond to Your Child’s Temperament” on my YouTube channel.
#2. Keep to Routine As Far As Possible
Children who are inclined to be more intense, more sensitive to new situations and who have a high level of activity can find it easier if life over the festive season doesn’t deviate too far from the norm. Think and plan ahead of time what you can do to keep the festive schedule closer to your usual weekend routine.
#3. Prepare Your Child Ahead Of Time So They Know What To Expect
Perhaps Christmas dinner is going to be at the grandparents’ home this year, or perhaps there will be a crowd of visitors coming to your house. Children with “less easy” temperaments don’t do well with the unexpected. So avoid surprises. Talk with your child about arrangements ahead of time so they can anticipate events. This will help them to manage themselves better.
You might also enjoy reading 7 Valuable Insights on How to Calm Anxiety in Your Child
#4. Plan Transition Times To Be As Stress-free As Possible
Be aware that seemingly small transitions, as well as the big ones, can trigger a meltdown for some children. E.g. when you move from one activity to another, even coming to the dinner table, going to bed, when visitors arrive, or when you are about to go out.
These are times that can be most challenging for your child to handle, so build in extra time around transitions to ease possible stress. Give your child advance warning of what’s about to happen. Plan ahead, or delegate some of your tasks, because if you can ease your own level of stress you will be able to be the calm your child needs if they hit a rocky patch.
#5. Respond As Soon As You Spot Warning Signs That Your Child Is In Danger Of “Losing Their Cool”
When a child feels overwhelmed their “thinking brain” goes temporarily offline and they are plunged into “fight’”or “flight” reactivity, where they can’t think straight or control their own behaviour. So get to be an expert at reading the signs that your child isn’t coping and create an early intervention that is likely to help your child regain their calm.
E.g. Excuse yourself from the group and spend some time with your child letting them enjoy their new present, or go for a walk, or, together with your child, spend time with the household dog. (Children are often soothed by animals.)
#6. Consciously Choose To Stay Calm
If you let your child’s stress take control of the situation and you get uptight, your child gets more uptight, and an even bigger meltdown is likely. The strongest emotion wins. So choose calm. You can do this with the #ABC of the Stop Yelling – Nine Steps to Calmer Happier Parenting.
- Acknowledge where you are at – Perhaps you can feel yourself getting wound up by your child’s behaviour. It’s easier to reclaim your calm if you acknowledge to yourself where you are at in this moment.
- Breathe – Consciously slow your breathing and breathe deeply, to give your brain more oxygen, which helps you to keep your “thinking brain” online to figure out what’s needed.
- Choose calm – It’s your choice to stay calm or to also get wound up. But if you allow yourself to get caught up in a stressed reaction, you won’t be able to access your logic or your intuition to find a helpful way forward. So consciously choose to stay calm.
You might also enjoy reading 10 simple ways for parents to stop themselves yelling at kids
#7. Remember Your Child’s Behaviour is About Them, Your Behaviour is About You.
It’s easy at times like a family gathering to feel judged or embarrassed by your child’s behaviour. When you allow those sneaky thoughts in, you’re far more likely to lose your cool, and become reactive. Challenging moments are when your child most needs you to stay calm so you can help them regain their equilibrium.
#8. After an Upset, Reflect on What Could Have Been More Helpful
These tips don’t mean that an upset won’t ever happen, but when your child has a meltdown, take time afterwards to reflect on what happened. This will help you to figure out what to do differently in future similar situations.
- Did you over-estimate your child’s ability to cope with the change in routine?
- Had you prepared your child adequately?
- Did you miss early warning signs?
- Find yourself losing your own cool?
- What could have helped to create a different more positive outcome?
This isn’t about blaming or shaming yourself or your child. It’s about recognising that we learn by reflecting on what happened so we can do better next time.
#9. Recognise Your Child Isn’t Being Deliberately Difficult
They are doing the best they can right now. And while you can’t change your child, if you understand your child’s unique blend of temperament traits, you’ll be able to respond in a way that makes this a learning opportunity for yourself and your child. This will support your child in learning to handle similar situations better as they get older, and pave the way to calmer, happier interactions.
#10. Seek Out Pockets of Calm in Your Christmas Schedule
In the festive season we can get so caught up in the hype that we lose sight that the greatest gift of Christmas is love. Sometimes we need a pocket of quiet and calm to recalibrate and regain our equilibrium and attunement with ourselves and with others, to be lovingly connected to one another. And, of course, our children need these spaces too. Maybe it’s about keeping Christmas simpler.
For you and your family, it might be helpful to slow down, keep food simpler, take a walk, have fewer things that can cause overwhelm. Perhaps that might mean fewer, or different, gifts, and choosing activities that will reestablish calm, rather than add to the hype.
You might also enjoy reading Coping with the Twelve Days of Christmas Sensory Overload
The Wonderful Thing About Your Intense, Sensitive, Active Child
The wonderful thing about the child whose temperament traits challenge us, is that their reactive behaviour often forces us to stop and think:
- “What really matters here?”
- “What do the people I most care about really need to have a happy Christmas?”
Understanding your child’s temperament, and what is needed for the child to maintain their equilibrium, isn’t only about having less upsets at Christmas. It can also give you signposts as to how to create more joy in your family life throughout the year.
Over to you now. What do you think? If you have a child whose temperament traits lead to “difficult” behaviour, what have been your experiences of what does, or doesn’t help, to avoid Christmas meltdown? What helps you create a more peaceful and happy Christmas? Tell us in the comments below.