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I don’t know about your kids, but mine are starting to lose their minds. The Moyer Emotional Maelstrom is an annual tradition that begins mid-December and steadily worsens until it reaches a fever pitch on Christmas morning, where there is joy and mirth and tears and screaming, often all at the same time. Even though I know it’s coming, I’m always totally shocked when it arrives. I have to take deep breaths (and sometimes a sip of wine) to remind myself why it happens — and then give myself a pep-talk or twelve and hope I make it another day.
So, as much for myself as for you, today I’m going to share Six Reasons Why Kids Are Assholes in December and my Four Tips for Surviving until January.
Let’s start with Six Reasons Why Kids Are Assholes* in December.
*I do not think my kids — or any kids — are assholes. Not really. I mean yes, they are. But it’s not their fault. They are assholes by mistake.
Anticipation. For many kids, anticipation feels an awful lot like anxiety. Kids are excited, but also nervous — what if the big day doesn’t live up to their expectations? What if Santa gets stuck in the chimney? What if they don’t get the Mr. Beast paraphernalia they asked for that costs a billion dollars and no parent in their right mind would ever purchase? Sometimes anticipatory anxiety makes kids rigid, leading to demandingness. It can also make them irritable, clingy, or exhibit regressive behavior. Seeing all the wrapped gifts accumulate doesn’t help. The holidays require all sorts of executive function skills — impulse control, delayed gratification, emotional regulation — that are difficult, if not impossible, for kids to master. So instead, they have meltdowns.
Parental stress. Kids pick up on our stress and anxiety. Research shows that kids of stressed out parents have higher circulating levels of stress hormones and exhibit more challenging behaviors, including defiance and aggression, compared with other kids. So if you’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed, burnt out, or something else unsavory, your kids might be responding to it. This doesn’t mean you should try to suppress your feelings, though — research suggests that doesn’t help, either.
Lack of routine. Being a kid is hard. Everybody is telling you what to do and yelling at you for drawing on the couch. One thing that makes kids feel safer and more in control is a predictable routine, because then they know what to expect and when. Yet over the holidays, parents often ditch routines because, well, we are understandably sick of them. We want to be impulsive, dammit! Some kids have a really tough time with the relaxing of routines and start acting out, though. My son, for instance, gets more and more particular and demanding about things when his daily routine starts to break down.
Expectations aren’t communicated (and are sometimes unrealistic). Around the holidays, we often throw our kids into new situations with obscure social rules, yet we fail to talk with them about what they should expect and what we expect of them. If you take your kids to a restaurant for New Year’s Eve, and you want them to sit there quietly for 90 minutes while Grandpa talks about that one time he almost went on Jeopardy, you better chat with your kids in advance about what you expect and make realistic plans to help them achieve it. Often, “bad” behavior arises because we haven’t given kids the scaffolding they need — or we haven’t been honest with ourselves about what they can actually handle.
Disappointment. If your kid throws a fit after opening all her wonderful gifts and you’re wondering if you’ve raised a monster, take some deep breaths. Disappointment is a natural reaction when something you’ve looked forward to for so long is finally over — adults often feel it, and kids do too, yet they don’t have the emotional regulation skills to manage it as well as we do. They may instead scream “I hate my gifts and I hate you!!!!!!” at the top of their lungs, making you want to crawl under the couch with your cat. Who, by the way, is also disappointed because you didn’t give them the gift of catnip.
Sensory woes. No matter how wonderful your Christmas/ Hanukkah/Kwanzaa is, your kid may still throw 14 epic tantrums in the middle of it. There are many possible reasons for this (see #1-5), but it may also be that your child is sensorily overwhelmed — they’re eating two dozen candy canes a day, getting squeezed constantly by Aunt Gertrude, and being subjected to repeat plays of Grandpa’s favorite Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album, so what the heck did you expect??? Keep in mind that your kid may pin a tantrum on something specific — “Those pajamas are too itchy!!!!” — but that might just be the straw that broke the toddler’s back. The meltdown is probably in response to everything (but especially, definitely, the Mannheim Steamroller).
So, yeah, that’s a lot. And the thing is, these aren’t even all the possible reasons why your (did I say your? I meant my) kids are messes right now. There are many more. But I only have so much space here. So we will move on.
Here are my Four Top Tips for Surviving until January. (If your kid is neurodivergent, see also this excellent post by Dr. Emily W. King on teaching kids to manage free time over the holidays.)
Maintain the bare bones of a routine. I know, you know, and we all know that we’re not going to follow a typical schedule over the holidays. (I promise, however, that your kids are still going to wake you up early every day.) Yet many kids do feel a lot safer (and less anxious) when they know what’s coming. Maybe you could at least eat breakfast together at the same time each day. Or perhaps you sketch out with your kid the bare bones of a schedule each morning even if it changes day to day. My daughter loves creating daily schedules while on vacation, and it helps her even if we can’t fill in all of the blanks. To drive this point home with science: In a 2018 study, researchers asked families with preschoolers how frequently they followed certain routines, like eating meals at a particular time, having clean-up schedules, and having set bedtimes. They found that the more the families followed these kinds of routines, the closer the relationships were between parents and their children, the less parent-child conflict they experienced, and the more self-control their kids exhibited.
Talk to your kids about what’s going to happen and set them up to succeed. If you’re doing something out of the ordinary — visiting relatives, traveling, going to a concert (did you know Mannheim Steamroller is actually on tour?!) — talk your kids through what they should expect, and explain what you expect from them. Then, make a plan to ensure that they can do what you need them to do. When we visited my parents this past summer, they wanted to take us out to nice restaurants every night, and my kids weren’t used to sitting quietly at long restaurant dinners. So we came up with a plan that we discussed with them in advance: They could each bring a book to dinner. They would be expected to chat with their grandparents for the first 15 minutes of the meal, and then they could sit and read their books quietly while the rest of us sat and talked. And of course, they got dessert.
Watch for sensory overload and advocate for your kid. When my sensory son used to spend time with his cousins, there was often a lot of noise, a lot of stimulation, and a lot of screens, and by mid-afternoon he would be at the end of his sensory rope. We found it helped when we scheduled one-on-one time with him each afternoon involving outdoor physical activity (such as a walk) so he could calm down and recharge. Now he’s at the point where he can recognize his needs and advocate for himself, but it took him a while to get there.
Don’t judge yourself or your kids when you or they lose their shit. Here’s the thing: No matter what you do this holiday season, and no matter how amazing you and your kids are, your children are probably going to scream and cry and defy you and talk back. That’s OK. Let them have their feelings. Don’t tell them to calm down or that they’re making a scene. Tell them that you love them and that it’s fine that they’re upset (but do clarify that they’re not allowed to throw shrimp cocktail at Aunt Gertrude). Their meltdowns don’t mean they’re ungrateful, spoiled, devil children, no matter what your in-laws might insinuate. They’re just kids being kids. In December.
I’m thrilled to have been quoted in three recent stories for Yahoo Life! There’s this excellent piece by Meg St-Esprit, which highlights this here newsletter as a resource that parents are turning to now that Twitter has become a steaming pile of poop. (She also mentions Emily Oster’s ParentData and Claire Zulkey’s Evil Witches, which you should subscribe to if you don’t already.) Kaitlin Reilly interviewed me for this great piece on kid gift-giving, and Jamie Davis Smith talked to me for this story on what to do if your child engages in bullying.
This could not have come at a more perfect time. Thank you!!
I wish I had this advice about 10 years ago with young kids. :)