Why Do My Kids Meltdown at the Holidays?
Q: Why do my children fall apart at the holidays? It certainly seems to be the case around here, especially around my in-laws, that my children become ear-splittingly unhappy whenever there is an extended family gathering. It’s so incredibly *embarrassing* that every time my sister-in-law sees my daughter that child has a complete tantrum! Is she just picking up on my stress or is there some better way of understanding this please??
A: You’ve hit on a very important piece of this puzzle. Children are built to be incredibly sensitive to our moods, stresses and the direction of our attention and energy. If you’re family is gathering and you are thinking things like, “Is there going to be enough gravy? Is Uncle Fred going to drink too much and start singing again like he did last year? Do I look OK in this outfit? Why are my sister-in-laws kids able to keep the cranberry sauce off their faces while they eat Thanksgiving dinner, but my kids aren’t?” the kids can feel not only that you are stressed, but that your attention is elsewhere - not on connecting with them.
This can be very stressful for them. Our bodies, young and old, have a number of defenses built in to release excess stress - laughter is one, crying, trembling, sweating are others. While Uncle Fred may calm his nerves with another brandy and soda, the kids will be more likely to get wild, run through the house chasing their cousins, try to get your undivided attention by clinging or hanging on you, or break down in tears or tantrums.
While this is probably not the picture postcard holiday moment you were hoping for, it’s normal, and while it may be loud or even embarrassing, it’s nothing to worry about. It may help if you realize that this phenomenon is as predictable as Newton’s apple falling from the tree.
There’s another side to the holiday coin.
Humans are social beings, and the more of us that gather, the more the situation communicates a kind of subconscious safety to the limbic portion of our brain, the portion that is built to seek and thrive on connection. When the clan gathers, that part of the child’s brain begins to vibrate to the perceived “safety in numbers” phenomenon that has taken place. You, off in your nuclear family, have x amount of resource to offer your children. When the family gathers, there is (theoretically at least) 14 times that amount of resource available. Children are built for ideal situations: they are born expecting the world to be just right for them. Their instincts are built for oodles of connection, resource, play, relaxed fun, and they await that from us every day. So when the family gathers, their minds arrange themselves for 14 times the wonderfulness of being with you. Emotional safety and all! Their limbic system primes itself for greater emotional sensitivity. Children don’t realize that most of the grownups they’re with have been trained since early childhood to have negative judgments about the unguarded expression of feelings. Even if a child realized this fact, the automatic priming of his limbic system would take place: it’s an instinctive process, not a logical one. Because it’s so predictable, it’s a process you can prepare for.
Your child’s limbic system has stored up all the dented feelings from past events that haven’t yet been expressed and released. When 14 fresh members of the family arrive, a child feels more hopeful, and more sensitive to every small thing that happens. Coupled with their heightened sensitivity is the effort and distraction that comes with the family gathering package for the adults involved. There are people you really want to connect with, food to prepare, appearances to keep up, old issues to either sit on or tiptoe around, and all the work and hassle of getting there in the first place. This scatters parents’ attention. Children become frantic because they depend, moment by moment, on our awareness of them and how they are doing. When they see that we’re preoccupied, it can trigger an emotional or behavioral emergency.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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