Ten strategies to prevent and address holiday challenges | CFS

Children and challenging behavior: Ten strategies to prevent and address holiday challenges

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By Jane Mose, MA, CFS Family Peer Specialist

Imagine this scenario:

It’s Christmas Eve. You’re looking forward to getting the whole family dressed up to go to a beautiful, candle-lit worship service and sing your favorite Christmas hymns. You’re also looking forward to tomorrow morning, eager to see the joy on your children’s faces as they open the special gifts you’ve chosen for them. After that comes a special Christmas carol worship service, followed by a wonderful, homemade Christmas dinner at Grandma’s and a chance for your children to play with their cousins, whom they don’t see often. This is going to be great, you think.

Then, in the next moment, you remember last Christmas. Your child sabotaged that entire holiday. He had refused to get dressed up for the Christmas service and ended up at church looking like he’s just come from an afternoon of football practice. On Christmas morning, he had ripped open every gift he could get his hands on—including the ones for his siblings—and thrown them at you, saying he hated them! When his sister had been about to open a gift of her own, he had told her what it was before she could open it. By the time gift-opening had been done, he had broken many gifts and trashed the living room, and he was screaming hateful things at you. You had to miss church because he wouldn’t calm down in time.

Things hadn’t gotten better at Grandma’s. He had kept covering his ears and running into the bedrooms and closets. He had screamed at his relatives to “Leave me alone!” When offered food at the dinner table, he had said, “Yuk!” and “I hate that” to just about everything but dessert. He had started fights with his cousins and pushed one into the Christmas tree. And by the time your family had gone home, everyone was pretty much exhausted and fighting off tears. The entire Christmas had been ruined.

And now you’re dreading this Christmas.

Does any or all of this sound familiar? In Part One of this series we looked at reasons children—particularly children who have experienced trauma—might sabotage Christmas and other holidays. Knowing the reasons behind your child’s behaviors can be very helpful in leading you to the best solutions. Here are some strategies that are often helpful, whether you understand the causes of the behavior or not:

  • Recognize that excitement may actually be anxiety. When a child seems obsessed with talking about the upcoming holiday, that may not be excitement, but actually anxiety. Talk about how that child is feeling about Christmas this year—does he have any concerns or worries? What does he remember about last Christmas?
  • Work with the child well in advance to help make others happy at Christmas. Help your child make homemade Christmas cards and gifts or pick out Christmas cards and gifts for others. This will give the child the opportunity to look forward to making other people happy at Christmas and teach about the joy of giving.
  • Teach in advance the social skills your child will need. Do role-playing of situations such as receiving a gift that you don’t like, needing to wait for others to open their gifts first, not liking some foods offered at the dinner table, being in a room that is very noisy, and the like. The more you practice these skills by acting them out in advance, the easier it will be for your child to use appropriate social skills in the moment.
  • Keep the event as low-key as possible. The bigger you make the celebration, the more dysregulated the child is often going to become! It is worth considering not going to a large gathering of extended family members, which may be overwhelming to your child. If you do go, make sure parents or other caregivers take turns staying near the child to help initiate breaks when needed.
  • Explain, step-by-step, what will be happening that is outside of the normal routine. Help your child feel safe by making the events as predictable as possible. On that day, give advanced notice of what will happen, such as, “In ten minutes, we are going to start gift-opening,” and “We will be getting in the car after supper to go to church.”
  • Stay calm. Remember the reasons that your child might be reacting to the celebration with negative behaviors, presented in the previous post. Don’t let the behaviors trigger you into over-reacting.
  • Do not give into the temptation to take gifts or treats away from your child for bad behavior. Children sometimes act out because they don’t feel they deserve good things. Taking away gifts or treats may reinforce that misconception. Use other natural consequences if needed, or have your child do a “redo” to show that they can respond more appropriately.
  • Do your best to limit sugar intake during the celebration. This sounds difficult, but it can be done if you plan ahead for low-sugar and sugar-free alternatives.
  • Name the need. When your child is just starting to act up, use wondering aloud to try to name the need the child is experiencing. For example, after the child rejects a gift that you know he actually would like to have, say, “I wonder if you are throwing that gift at against the wall because you don’t think you deserve to have it.” Talk about it more when the child is calm, even if it is later that day or the next day.
  • Plan to keep the days following the holiday relaxed. Your child may need a few days to fully calm down and get back into the normal routine after the changes and excitement of a holiday.

Remember that your connection with your child—especially if you are raising a child who has experienced trauma—is crucial, and each interaction you have with your child will probably either strengthen or weaken that connection. So even when your child seems to be deliberately sabotaging a special holiday, do all you can to make the result be the strengthening of your parent-child relationship. Show your child the type of forgiveness God has shown each of us, no matter how many times we’ve sinned, and model God’s love for your child. While it is fine to point out that the negative behavior is not ok, showing your understanding, acceptance, and love of the child during and after the holiday events can make an impact that will be remembered for a lifetime.

Jane Mose, MA, is an adoptive mom and former special education teacher who appreciates the opportunity to support other parents and encourage them throughout their parenting journey. She is trained as a Certified Parent Peer Specialist through the State of Wisconsin and as a Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) Practitioner through the Karen Purvis Institute of Child Development.

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