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10 holiday behaviour boosters

Tension with the in-laws? Unappreciative preschooler? Here’s how you can defuse holiday blow-ups and get on with the holiday cheer.

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Illustration by Gemma Correll

It’s billed as the most wonderful time of the year. But with the late nights, lack of routine and all that family togetherness, it’s no wonder kids (and parents!) sometimes cave in or blow up sometime in December. Here’s how to deal with common holiday challenges.

Your children

1. Fighting
The teasing your kids started at breakfast on the first day of their school break escalates into a shouting match by lunch.

Solution: When kids are cooped up and out of their routine, they may annoy each other more than usual. “The lack of structure when kids are out of school can make them feel anxious or insecure, and from that comes grumpiness and irritability, and siblings become a handy target,” says Calgary family educator Judy Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress. Try planning a daily diversion. Arrange (separate) playdates in advance, take the kids to an indoor play gym, or, if it’s a green December, shoot hoops at the local park.

2. Sermonizing tween
Your newly vegetarian nine-year-old lectures your dinner guests on eating meat.

Solution: Before dinner, review the basics of good manners, says Arnall, the mother of two teenage vegetarians. “Teach your kids that it’s all right to advocate for their own needs, but not to step on other people’s. So it’s OK to say ‘No thanks, I’m a vegetarian’ when offered a slice of turkey, but it’s not polite to lecture people.” The same goes for saying grace. “We’re not churchgoing, so if our hosts or guests pray before a meal, our kids know they don’t have to pray, but they need to be respectful of others’ beliefs and quietly bow their heads,” says Arnall.

3. Unappreciative preschooler
Your three-year-old is expecting a toy and complains loudly when he unwraps a hand-knit sweater.

Solution: You may be mortified by your son’s candour, but a three-year-old doesn’t have the acting talent to pretend to like something he doesn’t, says Sara Dimerman, a child and family therapist in Thornhill, Ont. So don’t chastise or deny his feelings even if you’re concerned the gift giver will think he has bad manners. Instead, model what you might like to see from him in years to come by thanking the gift giver yourself and commenting on something positive and specific. “Something like, ‘Look at the beautiful red stripe,’ which points him in the direction of saying what he does like about the gift,” Dimerman suggests. If the gift giver appears offended, take her aside privately, ask her not to take it personally, and explain that he’s too young to understand the concept of white lies to spare feelings.

4. Toddler tantrum
You’re enjoying an afternoon open house when your exhausted toddler—who won’t nap anywhere but her crib—starts to melt down.

Solution: As frustrating as it may be that your angel has morphed into the Tasmanian devil, this isn’t the time for discipline, says Toronto parenting coach Terry Carson. “She isn’t misbehaving, she’s just tired and she needs sleep.” Do whatever it takes to help her get it: Cut your visit short, send one parent home to get her to bed or take her for a drive if she falls asleep easily in her car seat. If an event is scheduled when she should be napping, consider leaving her at home with a sitter.

5. Daughter dons sweatpants
Your six-year-old refuses to put on her adorable holiday party dress.

Solution: Kids aren’t dolls to dress up as we please, so try to strike a compromise, says Arnall. “Negotiate with your child to wear the outfit while you take family pictures for 30 minutes, or when you first arrive at the party, but bring along more comfy clothes to change into.”

Your family

6. Nephews in need of discipline
You send your bookish son in to play with cousins, who start roughhousing.

Solution: This one’s a Christmas tradition for Kate Spencer and her nine-year-old son, Tyler.* “He doesn’t enjoy himself and ends up feeling left out, and we feel guilty for putting him in the situation.” If playtime with the cousins resembles a rugby scrum, take one of their parents aside and say, ‘I’m concerned that it’s getting a little rough. Would you mind if I said something?’” Carson suggests. “It’s tough because parents don’t want you to discipline their kids; it makes them look bad. This way you’re getting permission, which avoids a family argument.” If you can see your child is getting overwhelmed, suggest he take a quiet break and read. “But that would be my last choice — we can’t rescue our kids from every awkward situation,” says Carson.

7. In-house in-laws
You’re dreading your critical in-laws’ holiday visit.

Solution: House guests cause stress for you and them, says Winnipeg family therapist Scott Erickson. Even George Clooney might get on your nerves by Boxing Day. “If you want to share your feelings with your spouse, use ‘I’ statements like ‘I find this difficult.’ And be clear that you’re not expecting your partner to agree that his family is annoying,” says Erickson. Besides that, be polite and respectful and plan to skip out with the kids for some breathing room. “That will help you and the in-laws, who will probably need a break too.”

8. Unwanted advice
You give your son a time out, which triggers a tantrum — and your parents decide to weigh in.

Solution: “Hopefully, you can see that they care, but they may be expressing it in a prickly way,” says Erickson, who suggests this temporary fix to stop the criticizing for that day. “You can say (non-sarcastically), ‘Thanks for sharing your opinion; it really shows you care’ and ‘If I handle things differently, it’s not out of disrespect for you.” And remember that you know what is best for your kids. “Grandparents have no say — they’ve done their parenting,” says Arnall.

9. Separation anxiety
You’re lonely when the kids head to your ex’s at Christmas.

Solution: The holidays can bring up a lot of sadness, especially for newly separated families because parents are not getting the full experience with their kids, says Julia Staub-French, a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver. “Holidays can be a sad and difficult time for newly separated parents because they often have to share or give up time with their children. They may even have to deal with feelings of anger and abandonment if the child is now spending time with their former spouse’s partner, and not at home with them.”

Toronto single mom Jane Whitlock* spent her first Christmas dinner and Boxing Day without three-year-old Madison* last year. “I had to leave my family celebration early to drive her to her dad’s. I was a bit lonely and I anticipate it being more difficult as time goes on and her dad wants to take her somewhere for a few days. But then I will plan something for me!” That’s the right approach — your kids aren’t responsible for that sadness, so it’s important to keep them out of it. Find support and ways to soothe yourself through friends and family.

10. Overgenerous grandparents
You asked your parents to cut back, but they unload enough gifts to dwarf the tree.

Solution: Get your child to choose her favourites once they’re unwrapped; then, several days later, squirrel some away to bring out later. “You could also encourage your child to donate a few,” says Carson. To avoid an avalanche of gifts on the big day, let your child open presents as they arrive throughout the month: He’ll appreciate them more.

Meanwhile, ask your parents to scale back so kids start looking at the meaning of gifts, not the quantity. Although this request didn’t stop Sara Milton’s* mother-in-law from lugging loads of cheap presents, including huge stuffed toys, on the family Christmas trip to Florida a few years ago. “There was no way I was bringing them home, so I left them in the hotel room with a note for the cleaning lady that said All yours…enjoy!” recalls Milton, a Toronto mom of three. All went well until Grandma went back into the room to make sure nothing was left behind. “She came out with a frozen smile on her face and said, ‘It’s all clear!’ I felt terrible, but it was probably the strongest way to get the message across.”

*Names changed by request.

This article was originally published in November 2011.

Read more:
6 ways to keep your kids’ behaviour in check during the holidays
12 clever holiday hacks to get your through to January
52 ways to trim your holiday budget