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Why Do Kids Act Out at Christmas?

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Why Do Kids Act Out at Christmas?

Rebecca Brown Wright

It’s the worst parenting time of the year.

Jingle bells and candy canes and holiday parties and that creepy elf upon your shelf. It’s sensory overload time, and if you’re noticing more tiffs and arguments than usual, you’re not alone.

As we rush around, trying to create a magical, happy Christmas season for our kids, all that attention delivered elsewhere begins to leave our kids feeling on edge. The irony is not lost -- all the hustling to create a perfect family event actually causes us to take the focus off of our family.

For many of us, the hustle and bustle is just part of the season. Traditions are fun, and we don’t really want to give them up. So what can we do when our kids start to misbehave at Christmas time?

First, it’s important to understand why kids act out in the first place.

They Need/Want Our Attention

Kids need to feel they belong. Positive attention helps them feel secure in their place in the family.

As we rush around trimming the tree and wrapping gifts, our attention is suddenly diverted in a million different directions. This often pulls us away from the attention we would normally give to our kids, and so they act out to get us to pay attention again. (And it works!)

“When a child doesn’t feel a strong sense of belonging, she will act out in ways that she (mistakenly) believes will give her the emotional connection and positive attention she craves,” says Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions.

That may be why your oldest child has been picking on the youngest more frequently (despite repeated warnings that Santa's watching), or why your toddler suddenly thinks she needs to be in your arms the moment you pull out all the ingredients for your famous Christmas cookies.

how to help children behave

They Need/Want Power

Kids need to know that they are significant in the grand scheme of things, and especially in their own family. “Significance refers to one’s sense of autonomy, capability, and need to make contributions in meaningful ways,” McCready says.

In the rush of getting out the door for the neighborhood gathering, you may shove the mittens on your 5-year-old instead of letting him do it, prompting a level of tears that must be coming from another planet. Or maybe you aren’t letting your child make as many decisions as normal. There are too many things on the to-do list, after all.

how to help kids behave at christmas

Losing this sense of power leaves your child feeling helpless, and so she responds by becoming argumentative, aggressive, and uncooperative. She grabs at power in that can drive a parent mad. But it’s all a play at gaining a sense of significance and personal power.

What Can You Do?

Understanding why your kids misbehave at Christmas is only the first step (although, it’s a huge step). You also need to know what you can do to end the whining and fighting.

You could put a halt to all Christmas festivities, and go back to your normal routine. (Kidding. Kidding!)

Or you could make a few small tweaks this season that you can continue to carry on throughout the year.

When They Need Your Attention

When you’re dealing with a child who is whiny and clingy, you know they need your attention.

Sometimes, the best action is to stop what you’re doing and give them your undivided attention. But realistically, that scenario is hardly ever possible. You can't always give up everything you're doing. Instead, find a way to connect with your child while ignoring the negative behavior.

What does this look like? Well, if you’re in the middle of wrapping gifts and your toddler begins hanging on your legs and whining, pause for a moment. Give your child a hug, and then ask him to keep some tape on his fingers for you. Or let him try his hand at wrapping a spare box. Chat with him while he works alongside you so he knows he has your attention. Don’t chastise him for whining; rather, talk about the colors of the paper or what he hopes to get for Christmas.

how to help kids behave at christmas

What if your child is older? What if she keeps interrupting your conversation with your spouse? Pull her over next to you in a hug, tell her you’re excited to hear about her day, ask her to wait just a moment, and then quickly wrap up your conversation with your spouse while you keep your arm around her. She’ll have your attention and will understand she’s going to get her turn to speak soon too.

When They Need Power

Your kids won’t eat their peas. Or they won’t get their shoes on and get in the car. They won’t get ready for bed, and they won’t turn off the TV.

You can scream, threaten, and punish. And you’ll probably win. But everyone will feel miserable. Instead, recognize their resistance as a struggle for power.

And then empower them. No, don’t just give in and let them do what they want to do.

Instead, keep these four things from One Time Through in mind.

  1. Give your kids choices
    Most of us are familiar with the choice trick. “Do you want to walk to bed, or do you want me to carry you to bed?” Either way, your child is going to bed, but they feel empowered because they have a choice on how to get there. This works well for all ages, but it does lose its power from time to time.

  2. Give your kids responsibility
    Allow for natural consequences to take place. Everyone has responsibilities in life, including your children. They need to go to school, take care of their hygiene, do chores, and more. When they’re resisting, remind them of their responsibilities.

    “Your teacher expects you to finish your homework and bring it to school tomorrow.” “Your doctor reminded us that it’s important for you to take regular baths.” This puts your kids in charge of what they should be doing. It’s not Mom or Dad dictating their life.

  3. Name your child’s power
    Put the power into your child’s hands. 
    “I can’t make you do your homework.” This takes the power struggle away and again reminds your child who is responsible -- your child! Combine this with #2, and remind of responsibilities. “I can’t make you do your homework, but you are expected to get good grades, and your teacher has assigned this page.”
    You can also remind of natural consequences. “You will fail this assignment, and that will bring your grade down.”

  4. Ask for help.
    Let your child solve the problem.
    “I need to get dinner on the table so the family can eat. But if we continue to argue about your chores/homework assignment, the food will get cold and the family won’t want to eat it. Can you help me figure out what to do?” Hopefully your child will stop the fight, and even pitch in with dinner preparations.

Empower Yourself

If some of this sounds too good to be true, it might be -- at times. Kids aren't always predictable, and you'll always encounter an outlying situation that doesn't fit neatly into these suggestions.

However, when you understand that your children are grasping for power or attention, you'll be empowered to find creative solutions for the situations you face. Meet those basic needs in the right way for your particular child, and you'll be able to get along much easier.

And remove half of the reason for arguments by giving your children control over their own routines. Brili empowers kids by letting them manage their daily routines -- without nagging from parents.

More harmony. Less arguing. Happier holidays.