Children’s misbehavior during vacations can be a source of infinite stress and anxiety. Your individual expectations of the holidays can be seriously at odds: you expect to have a nice, shared time with your whole family and maybe attend some larger family gatherings; they expect to get every gift they demand, and they intend to spend their school break staying up late, sleeping in, and playing video games. The resulting holiday season can be filled with tantrums, obnoxious behavior, and lots of yelling and screaming
As an added stress, what is normally behavior just seen by your own family unit can suddenly be on display for everyone. Sometimes you might even feel like it’s just better for everyone if you skip those family events because you don’t want your own parents or your in-laws to see how out of control things have become.
(No wonder a lot of parents dread the holidays!)
Family gatherings and the holidays are times when inappropriate child behavior is felt most acutely by parents. But do kids really act out more during this time of year? And if so, what’s going on?
Let’s look at this through something James Lehman talks about in his Total Transformation Program: the idea that kids act out when they don’t know how to solve their problems. The holidays can give all of us a lot more problems to solve, (to put it mildly) and maybe that’s why behavioral problems can seem more intense during these months. For example, let’s say your son doesn’t want to go to Grandma’s house for dinner. He’s angry about having to go, and he pitches a fit. There’s a problem (“I’m angry”) and he solves that problem using a tool he hopes might work (yell and stomp so I don’t have to go).
Sometimes it’s the break in routine that cause children’s misbehavior during vacations. It can happen that excitement or expectation is too high, and they just don’t know how to handle that energy. When kids don’t know how to handle their problems in appropriate ways, they’ll use every inappropriate “trick” in the book.
One way kids try to solve their problems is by being obnoxious. The truth is, obnoxious behavior often works, in that we give in to what our kids want just to make them stop behaving that way or go away. After all, kids do what works. James Lehman really stresses the idea of “intermittent reinforcement” – that if you sometimes give in to misbehavior, then that behavior becomes a tool your kid will use again and again, in hopes that this will be one of those time that it works. (Sort of like people who play the slot machine. If you’re rewarded once every hundred times, it will still convince you to keep trying, because you’re hanging out for that jackpot. Kids treat parents the same way at times.)
Remember that no matter what the issue is, at its core, your child has a problem he is trying to solve: whether that problem is not wanting to spend a holiday dinner with extended family, or having an intense need for that new video game. Does yelling solve the problem? He might think, “If I get mad and throw things, will that keep me from having to go to church with my parents tonight? If it worked once, I’m going to try it again.”
Do you see how that works? James Lehman calls this “anger with an angle.” Not only do some kids use emotional outbursts to solve their anger or irritation, they also train their parents to be extra careful around them, so as not to “set them off.” In this way, they are trying to solve the problem of anger (or discomfort, or irritation) by getting what they want every single time: eventually, they only have to threaten an outburst to get their way.
If you find yourself walking on eggshells around your child just to keep things quiet, you’re not alone. Sometimes, you’re just plain tired, and giving in feels like the easiest solution. Starting right now, though, you can begin to take your power back and stop tiptoeing around your child.
Whatever the problem is, remember that your role as a parent is to help her learn appropriate ways to solve her problems, and to hold her accountable for her behavior. Your rules and expectations help her build the skills she needs to be successful in life. Learning to control your temper when things don’t go your way is a huge skill that many people don’t learn as kids, and still struggle with as adults. It doesn’t matter if the obnoxious behavior is a once-a-year problem or a constant daily struggle. The reality is that kids need to learn how to solve their problems in appropriate ways – all year round.
If your child’s behavior gets out of control around the holidays, here are some things you might try:
But what if you have a child who has angry outbursts, meltdowns and is generally hard to manage? What can you do to lessen your anxiety, manage their behavior, and work toward better behavior – even during the holidays?
First, keep that mantra running in your head: “He’s trying to solve a problem.” If you can speak to the problem underneath his negative behavior, you can respond more calmly – and therefore, more effectively.
Remember that the heat of the moment is not the time to discuss your expectations, or the consequences your child will face if those expectations are not met. If you’ve lived through enough holiday seasons with your child to know how they typically react, you can plan ahead. Sit down with your child and be clear and direct about what you need to happen this year.
It may take a while, but through your calm, clear role modeling, you’ll be able to manage your children’s misbehavior during vacations. Your child will learn that angry outbursts are not going to solve his problem.
The truth is, change is hard, and it’s going to take time. The sooner you begin to hold your child accountable for their behavior by helping them learn – and practice – better problem-solving skills, the better off your family will be. This will give your family a fantastic foundation for all the years to come.
by Megan Devine, LCPC & Estrada Vigil medical group