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Bah Humbug! Reducing Holiday Upsets

The holidays are an exciting time for children. The lights, the sounds, abundance of frosted sugar cookies . . . excitement fills the air!

For toddlers, however, the change to routine, excitement of toys, and new stimuli can result in emotional ups and downs, including more tantrums or, as we like to frame them, “upsets.” But with some planning and preparations, you can help your toddler regulate their emotions during this busy time of year.

Is it an “upset” or something else?

Upsets can be one of the most challenging parts of raising toddlers. But, while challenging for us, upsets are a sign of normal development. For some toddlers who are still developing their language skills, upsets result from not being able to communicate what they need. For others, it’s because they simply didn’t get what they wanted. Toddlers long for a sense of control and independence in this big, wide world and can easily get frustrated when parents or caregivers stay firm in the limits they have set.

Generally, an upset includes:

  • Crying without an obvious cause, such as being hurt or ill
  • Screaming and yelling
  • Kicking or rolling on the floor
  • Biting and/or hitting
  • Holding in their breath

If your toddler has been extra emotional lately, take a step back and evaluate what’s been going on in their lives:

  • Has your child been sick lately, or recovering from an illness?
  • Are they going through a growth spurt and feel extra hungry?
  • Could your toddler be getting molars in?
  • Has your child started preschool or daycare?
  • Have there been other changes to your child’s daily routine, such as a new caregiver?
  • Is your child starting to potty train?

These are all things that could potentially affect your child’s temperament and cause more upsets than usual. T. Berry Brazelton in Touchpoints describes a period of emotional dysregulation as typical right before a big developmental leap. Add to this the excitement and chaos of the holidays, and it’s a recipe for a rocky couple of months.

Reducing upsets

With a little planning, it’s possible to reduce the emotional strain this time of year puts on toddlers. Early on in the month, you could plan out the holiday activities you want to do with your child and space the activities out in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your toddler.  In addition, you could:

  • Try to keep to your toddler’s usual routine for meals and sleep times.
  • Avoid planning long outings when your toddler is overtired or hungry.
  • Throughout the day, let your child know what you are doing and what to expect.
  • Pack along plenty of snacks and water. Avoid sugary snacks and drinks.
  • Avoid planning too many activities in one day.
  • If possible, stagger family visits.
  • Big holiday parties can be overwhelming to young children, so stay close with your toddler to provide comfort. Take breaks, such as a walk outside, when needed.
  • Avoid holiday activities with long lines, or bring along some activities your child can do to reduce boredom while waiting.
  • Make sure your toddler gets plenty of exercise and outside time every day. Bundle up and splash in the puddles!

Managing an upset

Despite your best efforts, you’ll likely encounter a couple upsets here and there, and how you respond to them will depend on its source or cause.

In some cases, it’s as simple as providing comfort and tending to basic needs such as a snack or naptime. In other cases, an upset is from being told “no” or being asked to do something the child doesn’t want to do.  In these instances, try using “planned ignoring,” which involves purposely ignoring the upset until it stops. Once your child has stopped with their upset, offer up lots of praise and extra snuggles. You can also verbally praise your child for managing their emotions: “You did a great job calming down. I am proud of you.”

When you name the emotion your child is feeling, you validate their experience. You could say, “I know you are angry about not getting more candy right now even though you want it really bad, and it’s my job to teach you to keep your body healthy.” You validate their feelings and tell them your reason for the limit. Then teach skills to calm down, such as, “Let’s take some deep breaths together,” or “Would you like a hug?”

You could also:

  • Remove your child from the situation, such as a store where they want a toy or treat. Offer them the option of either calming down on a bench or in the car.
  • Take away a privilege if necessary.
  • Provide a distraction or alternative when you have to say “no,” such as, “We can’t buy a racecar today, but when we get home from the store let’s build a racetrack and race your cars!”
  • Offer your child a gentle, but firm hug.

All is calm, all is bright

During a major upset, try and remember that this phase of their childhood won’t last forever, and it’s not about you. Stay calm, as well as nurturing, yet firm limits during these trying moments and the two of you will survive and thrive during the holidays and toddler years.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).  Parenting Now is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now please visit their website (https://parentingnow.org/) or contact us at info@parentingnow.org

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