Your child will have big feelings when a special holiday or birthday comes up. It’s one of the phenomena you can set your clock by. We parents wish the universe were governed by forces a little easier on us than this one. But it may help to know that every other family deals with the same phenomenon you do, and that, in a way, children are built to have big feelings on big occasions.
Why? There are several reasons that work together. First, when any holiday or birthday rolls toward a family, it puts extra demands and stress on the parents, and the children tend to become infected with stress too. They get less relaxed time with us, and have more expectations of “good behavior” put on them in stores, at homes they’re not familiar with, and among people they may not know well.
And second, children’s hopes soar in anticipation of a special occasion. They look forward to the extra attention, to extra fun, to special times. And when hopes are high, both children and adults can feel disappointments much more acutely.
A third factor is the principle that the greater the number of loving family and friends gathered in one place, the higher children’s feelings rise. The sight of many loving people gathered creates the safety to notice how we feel, and those feelings bubble up and out. Children tend to do the very best they can to cooperate and to flex. Then, they hit the wall. They can’t go another moment without exploding in feelings. These meltdowns often happen in public places, when the family gathers, or at some other highly inconvenient time for you, the parent. Either a sibling will touch a sacred toy, or a spill of juice will bring a huge cry, or who sits next to whom at Thanksgiving will be the cause for a tantrum.
It happens in every family, every holiday, because it must. Children full of tension just have to let it out. Their systems have a built-in “emotion ejection system” designed especially for the moments when they just can’t think any longer. When they’re done releasing the bad feelings, they can be reasonable, thoughtful, and flexible again.
It helps to be prepared
Just as you are in the habit of preparing yourself for the quirks in your relatives’ behavior, you can prepare to handle your child’s meltdown. When you see that things are getting tense, you can move toward the tension, instead of away from it. You set yourself up for disappointment every time you think, “Maybe this time, he’ll calm down all by himself.”
Move toward a tense child to play with him for five or ten minutes before leaving for Grandma’s, eliciting as much laughter as you can (without tickling) so he feels more connected to you. Or gently but firmly set a limit if his behavior has already gone off track. After you set the limit, stay with him and gently assist him to release the upset through crying or tantrums. Hold the limit and love the child.
What children need is simple
They need the chance to have their cry, express their disappointment, tantrum fully, or laugh a good while. When they’re done, they can feel your love again. They notice the needs of the people around them, and show their genius for loving and living life well. Children’s need to cry is as wholesome as their need for sleep; ejecting passionate feelings keeps their minds in good working order.
They’re not crying to embarrass or manipulate you, they’re crying to offload bad feelings so they can feel better again. The fact that the meltdown happens often in public may indicate that life has been going so fast in private that they couldn’t find a way to catch your attention there.
Prepare for criticism from others
Very few people understand how healthy a good cry or tantrum is for a child, and how deeply it improves a child’s behavior to have the parent listen and care through the storm. You don’t need to bow to other people’s worry or disapproval. If you’re in a public place, you’re not in charge of making sure that every passerby has a mellow day. With your family, you know who will be upset, so think ahead of time about what you might want to say. “Well, at least he’s doing a good job of getting this out,” “We’ll go into the back room so you don’t all have to hear about it,” “She’s been needing me to listen to her all day,” or “This will be over in a little while. Save some pie for us!”
We need some time to express our feelings, too
Holiday expectations are often a heavy load for parent. We need to find a caring adult who can help us take the edge off our frustration, anger, or other feelings that special occasions trigger for us. When you don’t have a listener handy, but your feelings are close to the surface, it can work to play music that moves you, call a good friend, or rent a movie you know will let you cry. Your mind will release the tensions that pinch if you can find a way to allow yourself a good healthy meltdown, too.
We also recommend taking the pressure off yourself. Your celebration doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. You have the right, and the opportunity, to decide ahead of time what makes sense for you and your family at birthday or holiday time. Rather than dragging yourself and your family through all the expected rituals, you can decide what kinds of things you want to do, and will work for you, and what won’t. You can postpone trips, visit relatives at less difficult times, do potlucks, exchange used gifts. You can schedule Special Time every day during the busy times, so that your children have the sense of connection they need to operate on a more even keel.
The opportunities for reworking your family’s celebration expectations are countless. Feel free to make things work well for you and your family, no matter what kind of precedent you break. You can always go back to the old way next time.
And what about the times when a holiday has driven you over the brink? Thanks to children’s inborn healing process, the damage can be undone with an apology and some listening.
Here is one holiday-stressed single mother’s story:
I had just walked in the house with the kids and my seven-year-old son went right over to the Christmas tree and started “fixing” the lights. I had just put them on the tree. He messed them up, and I got mad. I blew it, basically. I said, “What are you doing! You wrecked it. I can’t believe you did that!” I went on and on. It’s so awful when you make such big obvious mistakes.
Anyhow, he put his head in the sofa pillow and cried. So I went over to him. He kept turning away from me. I apologized. I said I’d made a mistake. I asked him if he wanted to fix the lights now and he wouldn’t even look at me. I told him I knew he was trying to help. He was crying.
He moved away from me. Previously, when he was upset and I moved close to him, he would fight me off wildly. So I decided not to move toward him. I stayed on the sofa and kept talking to him. I kept asking him if he would come sit in my lap. This made him cry harder. But I kept inviting him to come to me. After a few more minutes of feelings, he came and jumped on my lap. I told him again that I was sorry. Then I said that moms make dumb mistakes sometimes, and that this one had been pretty dumb. He laughed, and we were feeling close again. We wrestled and played for a little while. Then I asked him if he wanted to fix the lights. He said yes, jumped up, and fixed the lights.
When your child feels hurt and you offer love and acceptance, it often speeds the healing process by helping the child cry more intensely. He gets the upset out of his system faster because love is pouring in. The loving things you say don’t look like they’re helping. Your child is crying harder and acting more hurt than ever. But you can safely keep offering your caring. Reaching out and listening while your child cries hard is a powerful formula for mending the trust between you.
Afterward the special occasion can proceed. You’ll have a more relaxed child, and you’ll be pleased with yourself for offering your love at a time when he really needed it, and used it well.