This is Supposed to Be Fun! Holiday Events and Acting out

This is Supposed to Be Fun!

Many families celebrate the holidays this time of year, and if you’re lucky, you may be looking forward to gatherings and family traditions. As a parent, you want those family traditions and gatherings to be special, warm, and wonderful for your children, yet so many things can get in the way – such as when your children’s behavior is not as expected. Whether they won’t join the family picture or they won’t respond to a grandparent, these moments can be really stressful. You might start to feel like, “What if everyone thinks my kids are badly behaved (or that I am a bad parent.)?” or even, “What if I AM a bad parent?”  It really helps to understand why these things happen and what we miss along the way. (Spoiler alert, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.) 

It's Not Always What You Think

Even if your child is excited about a family party, a trip to get a tree, or the lighting of the menorah, they may also have an equal mix of anxiety, (and often we do too!) Too often, we think of anxiety as when a child is quiet, puts their head down nervously, or even tells you that they feel worried. In those cases, we can likely feel for them, and try to help, even if unsuccessful. However, anxiety, like stress, can show up in many forms, often categorized as a form of fight, flight or freeze. When your child is chasing a younger cousin or grabbing their toy, anxiety does not usually come to mind. What comes to mind is that they are not appreciative – maybe even selfish,  that they are a little spoiled and out of control, and that they need to be punished, but anxiety and stress can lead to acting out as well – all various forms of fight, flight or freeze. 

This often isn’t clear to us, because they have also been looking forward to this event. Anxiety and excitement can often go together. 

Let's dive in. Holiday events are talked about and prepared for over time. While you may feel that you shoulder all of the stress, as you make food and organize, your child may also be feeling anxiety as it leads to the event. Will they have to talk to that one relative that they feel nervous about? Will it be loud? Will they be included with the other children? And they are even absorbing other anxiety around them, too. As all of these worries come in, the stress response gets heightened. You may notice that one thing goes wrong and they go from “0 to 60.” This is a sign that stress or anxiety has actually been building, and that one disappointment or demand was the tipping point. If you are able to notice signs of anxiety leading up to an event, it may help to address them earlier, to prevent the build up and the challenging results.

Signs of Anxiety

When a child is feeling anxious they may retreat, get quiet and pull away. This may be some form of freeze or flight (even if mentally checking out). Perhaps they are glued to a screen, or just seem to be “ignoring” you. 

They also may get more active. Flight may literally be running away or around. You may see this extra energy needing to be released. Flight may also be running away from you. 

Or they may seem angry, going into a form of a “fight” response – arguing with you or with siblings or grabbing toys. 

They may exhibit a combination of these. As the time gets closer and the anxiety builds, so do those stress hormones, and they stay in the child’s system. 

So, what to do? You don’t want to cancel events. And logically reasoning with your child, bribery, or punishing them often does not help. How can you help lower that stress response, in other words, help your child feel safe, so that they can think through things and also enjoy what is happening around them? 

Turns Out There Are Things You Can DO to Lower Your Child’s Stress.

  1. Take breaks. We all need them. When you feel overwhelmed, being able to take a break and come back to the event or the task, it can help you reset. Telling your child ahead that its okay to take a break, and give them a way to do that and a plan to return. This might be a few minutes in his room with a book, and when it would be important to come back.
  2. Describe what is happening, without any judgment. Putting things into words, while refraining from judgment can have a calming effect on you and your child. And just focusing on the thing that is happening is more manageable. “Your cousins are playing a game that you don’t know how to play.” or “I forgot the cookies you made.” This narrows the focus and your child may respond. 
  3. Express understanding of their perspective. It turns out that when we feel understood, this can block the release of the stress hormone cortisol. When our feelings or perspectives are put into words, it can even change the way we think. You can offer them great relief even if you can’t solve the problem. “It’s hard to be the only one learning a new game.”, ”You worked hard on those cookies and want to share them.” or even, “This isn’t going how you had expected.”

Try these tips when you see stress and anxiety are rising, and hopefully, you can all enjoy the events and activities that are important to you.Try these for yourself, too. Take breaks, say things out loud that are happening that YOU find stressful, and sit next to the person who helps you feel understood! For more helpful information, join our course, Building Confidence, Trust, and Hope: Three Things You Can Do to Help an Anxious Child



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