Why Kids Get Unruly Around the Holidays

Does your child start to act like they belong on the naughty list during the holidays? Here's why – and what to do about it.

It’s no secret that children’s behavior can nosedive this time of year. Maybe it’s all those sweets, the planning hubbub or anticipation of Santa’s big visit.

“They can get whiny, demanding, overexcited, clingy, sulky or stubborn,” says Kerry Kelly Novick, a child and adolescent therapist and co-founder of Allen Creek Preschool in Ann Arbor. “No fun at a time when everyone wants to or expects to be enjoying themselves.”

Why the ruckus?

Kelly Novick has her own list of reasons why bad behavior can be brought on around this time of year:

  • Disruption of ordinary routines, which can upend structure and push normal expectations out of focus
  • Parents reverting to old routines with their parents – if they’re a part of the holiday picture – which can alter how they take care of their own kids
  • Unrealistic expectations and plans
  • Unusual or extra impatience
  • Pressure and judgment from relatives on the parents

It can all add up fast – and it’s not easy to handle. From festive décor, cards and gifts to hosting and visiting, there’s a lot going on – and it becomes a juggling act for parents and kids alike.

“You aren’t enemies,” Kelly Novick reminds, “but allies who share the goal of enjoyment.”

How to deal

Threats of that “naughty list” only go so far – and can just wind up upsetting all parties. However, Kelly Novick notes, the holidays are different for every family, and there are a variety of ways to handle your impish elves.

“(It) depends on whether the very idea of holiday gifts in your family is about rewards and punishments, or about expressing love for each other,” she says. If you lean toward the former, the “Santa’s watching” approach may help regulate some behavior issues. If it’s the latter, though, skip the “cancel Christmas” talk.

“Don’t abdicate from responsibility by locating the judgment in Santa or an elf or whatever,” Kelly Novick says, “but take personal responsibility to hold to your values and standards for your child’s behavior and find more connected, natural consequences for misbehavior. Just as you are the one giving gifts, you are the one who stands for values and enforces their application.”

It is also important that parents keep their own emotions in check. When kids are misbehaving, Kelly Novick says, stop, take a deep breath – and think. “What is important to you and your child at this very moment? Are you asking too much?” Not every detail needs to be Rockwell-painting serene.

And if you catch yourself setting unrealistic expectations, like wanting kids to sit still or be quiet for too long or tackle a laundry list of chores? Dial back. Apologize, make new plans and share that with your kids.

If you’re not, though, Kelly Novick suggests trying to help and work together.

Avoid the mess

“Less is more,” says Kelly Novick. “Try to do the least change to ordinary routines and timetables, like bedtime, mealtimes and range of activities.”

Try to keep things as normal as possible, from setting limits on the sugar intake to honoring bedtimes and simply enjoying some moments together.

“Strive to reduce obligations and pressure for perfection and contrived specialness,” Kelly Novick says. “Work toward fun, shared activities to create good memories.”

Kids can have just as much fun helping with food and putting up decorations as they can playing with toys, and Kelly Novick suggests simplicity.

“Get back to the basics of what you value in the holiday,” she says.

Art by Mary Cindrich


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