When parents and children alike want to have the most fun and be the least stressed, the holiday season is the time of year where everyone’s stress exponentially increases. And with a significant part of the holiday season spent with visits to family, it’s no wonder that problem behavior skyrockets.
If your child is prone to difficult behavior you’re likely dreading these visits to family. Even if you’ve got a little angel, the holiday season is enough to make even the most composed child turn into a Grinch every once in awhile.
What are the best ways to handle problem behavior at the in-laws this holiday season? Check out the 7 tips below for happier and less stressed family visits.
1.Make pre-planned visits only
The holiday season is the season of extra parties, get-togethers, and community events. Add in extra visits to family, and that’s just more pressure for your child to hold it together. Your kid thrives on routine, so this could be an extra source of stress. Not to mention, if he’s used to spending his Sunday evening playing video games and he has to give it up to visit grandma, he’s bound to be a little cranky.
So what do you do? Prepare your child ahead of time for every family event. No spontaneous visits. Let him know as soon as you do, and give a reminder the day before. If he says “But mom that’s when I hang out with my friends,” skip the lecture about why family’s important and let him know when he can schedule an alternate time to catch up with his best buds.
2.State your expectations of behavior
Have a sit-down with your kid at home before the visit about your expectations for good behavior at the holiday visit. Have a reminder chat in the car ride over and have your child repeat back your expectations.
If rules are different at your in-laws, let your child know ahead of time. School age and teen age children can be pretty flexible with different rules at different places, but it’s never safe to assume.
Remember to phrase the expectations as what he should do, not what he shouldn’t do. If you say “Don’t be mean to your younger cousin” the definition of “mean” is highly debatable for your kid. Be specific about what you want your child to do. Examples: “share your iPad” or “say kind words” can be more helpful and meaningful to him.
3. Do check-ins throughout the visit
Don’t just hunker down on the couch with the other adults and wait for the house to come crashing around you before you check in on your kiddo. Get up every once in awhile and peek in on his activities. This lets your child know you are keeping tabs on his behavior, and that you care about him and his well-being.
If you see something that you know could become a problem, spotting it early can help him get back on track before he completely goes off the rails.
4. If you need to discipline, do it privately
No one wants to be publicly scolded. Pull your child into an unoccupied room where you have his full attention, and explain to him what he’s doing wrong, and what you want him to do instead.
Yes, he’ll have a reason for his behavior: “But mom, Johnny said it was ok to skateboard in the house!” Hear him out, and then repeat your expectations. If you feel like other kids are getting rowdy and your child is getting sucked in, redirect your child to another activity. Make sure he understands what he needs to do before you return your attention to the other adults in the party.
5. Reward good behavior, not bad behavior
Tell me if you’ve heard yourself say this: “If you stop that right now Santa will give you an extra present.” I know it’s tempting, but maintain that control and stay away from bribes. Bribery can really spin out of control and add to behavioral challenges.
Instead, offer a reward for good behavior. Set a behavioral goal ahead of time (respectful words to grandma, getting along with cousins, expressing gratitude for presents, etc.). If he starts to get off track during the visit, remind him of the expectation and the reward.
6. Avoid empty threats
How about this statement: “If you don’t stop, Santa’s not going to bring you any presents.” Really? Be careful with this one. Here’s why:
- You have to be prepared to follow through. So really ask yourself if on Christmas Day your child is going to wake up to a present-less Christmas.
- It doesn’t solve the problem right now because the punishment is still days or weeks away.
- Santa’s not here, you are. You want your child to mind your words. Maintain your power by setting your boundaries and letting your child know you will follow through.
7. Keep the visit time-limited
Be mindful of any cues your child is giving you indicating you need to pull the plug and head home. Try to leave before he get too tired, and can’t control his words or behaviors (or you, for that matter). You know your child the best and these cues can look like anything from crankiness and defiance, to even hyperactivity.
Same thing if your child is prone to challenging behavior and gets triggered. If steps 1-6 don’t work, there’s no shame in wrapping up the visit and heading back home. It’s better to have a successful short visit than a long visit that ends in a melt-down or blow up that will be remembered and recounted for many Christmas’s to come.
Bottom line: Holidays = stress. Family visits during the holidays = stress to the 100th degree. Ultimately, your child can only have so much self-control, and will need your help. It’s up to you to maintain control of your emotions and behaviors so you can help your child during his times of need.
So do some self-care for yourself this holiday season. Visits with family are stressful enough, and if your child is already prone to problem behavior, you’re in for an extra dose of holiday madness.
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.