Holidays and Meltdowns: They Go Together Like Peanut Butter And Jelly (page 3)
It's one of the phenomena you can set your clock by. Your child will have big feelings when there is a special holiday or birthday coming up! We parents wish the universe ran by rules a little easier on us than this one. But this is the way things work with children. It may help to know that every other family deals with this same phenomenon, and that, in a way, children are built to have big feelings on big occasions.
Why? There are several reasons that work together. First, when any holiday or birthday rolls toward a family, it puts extra demands and stress on the parents. The children tend to become infected with stress too. They get less relaxed time with their parents, and have more expectations of "good behavior" put on them in stores, at homes they're not familiar with, and among people they may not know well. And second, children's hopes soar around holiday time. They look forward to the extra attention, to extra fun, to special times. When hopes are high, children feel disappointments much more acutely. A third factor is that when many people gather to care about each other, it creates enough safety to allow feelings to bubble up!
Children cry only when they can't function any longer
Children tend to do the very best they can to cooperate and to flex. Then, they hit "the wall." They can't go another moment without exploding in feelings. These meltdowns often happen in public places, when the family gathers, or at some other highly inconvenient time for you, the parent. Either a sibling will touch a sacred toy, or a spill of juice will bring a huge cry, or who sits next to whom at Thanksgiving will be the cause for a tantrum. It happens in every family, every holiday, because it must.
Children full of tension simply have to let it out. Their systems have a built-in "emotion ejection system" designed especially for the moments when they just can't think any longer. When they're done releasing the bad feelings, they can be reasonable, thoughtful, and flexible again!
Give up false hopes that tension will disappear
It helps immensely to be prepared. Just as you are in the habit of preparing yourself for the quirks in your relatives' behavior, you can prepare to handle your child's meltdown. When you see that things are getting tense, you can move toward the tension, instead of away from it. (You set yourself up for disappointment every time you think, "maybe this time, he'll calm down all by himself.")
Move toward a child who's on the edge of upset
You can move toward a tense child to play with him for 5 or 10 minutes before leaving for Grandma's, eliciting as much laughter as you can (without tickling). This play will help him to feel more connected to you, and to regain his sense that life is good. Or you can gently but firmly set a limit if his behavior has already gone off-track. After you set the limit, stay with him and gently assist him to release the upset through crying or tantrums. Hold the limit and, at the same time, love the child.
Listening dissolves the upset
What children need is simple. They need the chance to have a good cry, express their disappointment, do the tantrum that's been brewing, or laugh a good while. When they're done, they can feel your love, notice the needs of the people around them, and show their genius for loving and living life well. Children's need to cry is as wholesome as their need for sleep--it's one of the things that keeps their minds in good working order.
Children don't cry to embarrass or manipulate their parents. They cry to offload bad feelings so they can feel better again. When their meltdown happens in public, it often means that life has been going so fast in private that they couldn't find a way to refuel with your attention there.
Think ahead to counter criticism from other adults
When others criticize your child for his or her outburst (which is, unfortunately, something you can also depend upon) you don't need to buy into their worry or disapproval of you and your child. Think ahead of time about what you want to say. "Well, at least he's doing a good job of getting this out! We'll go into the back room so you don't all have to listen to it." Or, "She's been needing me to listen to her all day!" Or, "This will be over in a little while. Save some pie for us!"
Let go of unworkable expectations
We often hurtle into the holidays with very specific pictures in our minds of what the holiday is "supposed to" look like. Magazines, TV ads and dearly-held family traditions tend to erode our power to decide what is workable for ourselves and our families. Parents lead their families. So if the family has little to spend on the holidays, the parents can set a tone of adventure, and let the children know what will be special about this holiday, and what to expect.
For instance, deciding that "We're going to give (or Santa is going to bring) one special gift for each person this year, and then we're all going to have four flavors of ice cream--as much as we want--for breakfast!", or, "Each night of Hanukkah, we're going to light the candles, and then turn off the lights and get every pillow in the house together for a big pillow fight!" sets an expectation for new and memorable adventures that are affordable, and will be remembered for decades.
Find a listener to relieve your own stress
We parents need to remember that we need some time to laugh hard and cry, too, when we're hemmed in by holiday expectations we can't possibly meet. When you don't have a listener handy, it can work to play music that moves you, get time on the phone with a friend, or rent a movie you know lets you cry. Your mind will release the tensions that pinch, no matter what way you find to give yourself some meltdown time too.
We can help heal the effects of the mistakes we make
And what about the times when the holidays have driven you over the brink? Thanks to children's inborn healing process, the damage can be undone with an apology and some listening. Here is one holiday-stressed single mother's story.
I had just walked in the house with the kids and my son (he was seven) went right over to the Christmas tree and started "fixing" the lights. I had just put them on the tree. And he pulled them--well, he messed them up. And I got mad. I blew it, basically. I said, "What are you doing ! You wrecked it - I can't believe you did that!" I went on and on. (It's so awful when you make such big obvious mistakes!) Anyhow, he put his head in the sofa pillow and cried. So I went over to him. He kept turning away from me. I apologized. I said I'd made a mistake. I asked him if he wanted to fix the lights now and he wouldn't touch it. I told him I knew he was just trying to help (this usually brings more tears from him). He was crying.
He moved away from me. Previously, when he was upset and I moved close to him, he would fight me off wildly. So I decided to try what you had suggested and I didn't move toward him, but stayed on the sofa and kept talking to him. I kept asking him if he'd come sit in my lap. Then he cried harder--that invitation really did seem to get through to him. I guess it helps him notice how alone he feels, even though I love him. After a few minutes of crying, he came and jumped on my lap! I told him again that I was sorry. Then I said that moms make dumb mistakes sometimes, and that this one had been pretty dumb. He laughed, and we were feeling close again. We wrestled and played for a little while. Then I asked him if he wanted to fix the lights. He said yes, jumped up, and fixed the lights. ffering love often brings intense feelings to the surface
When your child feels hurt and you talk to him with a tone of love and acceptance, it often speeds the healing process by helping the child cry more intensely. He gets the upset out of his system faster because he feels your love pouring in. The loving things you say won't look like they're helping--when you say just the right thing, your child will cry harder and act more hurt than ever. But keep offering your caring. As you reach for your child, he cries hard, and the two of you are partners in the process of closing the distance between you.
When children are upset, they want us close
In short, holidays intensify all of our hopes for closeness with each other. When children's feelings erupt, they're saying, "I can't feel loved or satisfied right now--please help!" The love we're working so hard to show them through family gatherings, gifts, and celebrations can seep directly into their hearts as we listen to them cry or tantrum about some detail of how life isn't right for them. They want us close while they tell us how bad it feels. Fixing the situation can almost always be done after the feelings are over, and your love has been delivered and received.
The mission of Hand in Hand is to foster healthy parent-child relationships that will last a lifetime. Parenting by Connection is Hand in Hand’s approach to fostering close, responsive relationships between parents and children. All information has been reprinted with permission from Hand in Hand, © 1997 - 2009 Hand in Hand.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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