Why do my kids turn into monsters over the holidays?

You better not cry, you better not pout... haha yeah right.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole:

Why is it that mid-December, every year, my kids morph into psychopaths? This is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, not the most deplorable. And yet, here we are. Help!

Sincerely,

Grinch Mom

Dear Grinch Mom,

As soon as my six-year-old came downstairs this morning, she had a meltdown and locked herself in the basement. So I hear you. I do.

My friends do, too. Yesterday, one of my friends told me that a few years ago, on Christmas eve, her three-year-old decided to re-enact the Wet Bandits portion of Home Alone. “He stopped up a sink and flooded a first-floor bathroom so badly that water was pouring through the basement ceiling,” she recalled. Another friend with three-year-old twin boys (bless her) says that she’s now living a particularly hellish version of Groundhog Day. Each morning, the boys decide that they MUST HAVE something specific and weird — a fuzzy gingerbread man, a Raffi puppet — and they start having tantrums if she doesn’t conjure it within hours. The next day, it happens again but with something else.

Why do our kids lose their minds in December, and what can we do to make it stop? Is this year going to be even more intolerable because of course it is? I have answers.

  1. Parents are stressed — and kids pick up on it and reflect it back.

Let’s face it: December sometimes turns us into monsters, which is part of the problem. We have to do all the things — buy gifts for relatives, kids, teachers, and everyone else; decorate the house; make gingerbread houses. This year, we might also be mourning the fact that we can’t travel to see Grandma. Or perhaps we’re stressed trying to figure out how to safely see Grandma. We may also be struggling financially and losing our minds because our kids have been home for ten straight months. There are so many reasons for us to feel overwhelmed right now.

Unfortunately, kids pick up on our anxiety and reflect it right back to us. “If we're stressed out and short-tempered, our kids are going to be stressed out and short-tempered,” child psychologist and author Tina Payne Bryson explained to me over the phone yesterday. I realize that this doesn’t sound particularly constructive: Guess what, your kids are acting out because of you! But I bet there are some holiday expectations you have for yourself that you could relinquish this year. What could you not do, or just do less of (don’t sacrifice the fun traditions, but the stuff you abhor)? What aspects of this holiday season do you have some control over that you could tweak and make easier? Consider, too, doing a couple of minutes of breathing exercises each day — when I’m stressed, they put me in a much better headspace. Free mindfulness apps you could try include The Breathing App, Insight Timer and Smiling Mind.

  1. Children thrive on routine and structure, and the holidays upend them.

A few years ago, I talked with UCLA clinical psychologist Catherine Mogil about holiday kid anxiety for a piece I wrote for Slate. “This time of year, all of the things we put in place that help children feel safe and secure and know what to expect go out the window,” she said. Although this fall has been weird for all of us, I bet your kids still had structure built into their days. Yet over holiday breaks, we tend to eliminate this structure and leave our days open and free. This freedom, which feels wonderful to us, isn’t so easy for our kids to wrap their heads around.

Indeed, there’s a growing body of research supporting the idea that kids thrive on routine and structure and suffer without it. In a 2018 study, for instance, 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. Other research has shown that kids become less anxious and depressed in the face of challenges when their families follow routines.

So when routines disappear over the holidays, kids feel less safe and secure — and what happens? They become more challenging. They need more and they react more. They feel like they don’t know what’s coming and when, and that makes them irritable and anxious. “Anytime something changes in their environment, we often see an explosion of behavioral stuff. That's really just them expressing their stress from that transition,” Bryson says.

One thing we can do to make the holidays easier, then, is to incorporate routine and structure into every day. I know, I know; isn’t the whole point of the holidays that we lounge on the couch sipping eggnog? Yes, well, welcome to parenting. You don’t have to schedule every second, but maybe you could have breakfast at the same time each day (even if it’s later than normal), or read a book together right before lunch every morning. With older kids, perhaps you designate certain windows of the day for screen use or phone calls with friends, and those times stay relatively constant. (Need ideas for daily routines? The CDC has a section on its website that includes detailed recommended daily schedules for families with kids of different ages.)

Another smart idea is to talk to your kids each morning about what their day will look like. Perhaps at breakfast you say, OK, it’s a beautiful day so let’s all go on a walk. Then after that we can have lunch and watch a movie. You can do this even if you don’t really have plans, just to help your kids manage their expectations and know what’s coming. Today, it’s so cold and yucky out, shall we just sit by the fire and do puzzles?

Consider, too, that many of the ways in which we relax over the holidays involve indulgences. We let kids stay up late. We let them eat more sweets before bedtime. In essence, we tell them that we are relaxing our boundaries and our rules for them, and this can be confusing when we suddenly decide to uphold other rules, Bryson says. If we’ve let our kids stay up late and decorate cookies, it may then be baffling when we suddenly get mad at them for decorating the dog with frosting too. Your kid might think, you let me do all this other stuff; why isn’t icing the puppy also OK?! So while it’s fine to relax our rules a bit over the holidays, don’t go overboard. Maintain some structure in order to maintain your sanity.

  1. We have high expectations for our kids around the holidays, but we don’t always communicate them — and some aren’t realistic.

Imagine, pre-pandemic, that you dressed your child up to attend a fancy holiday party. There’s your adorable six-year-old, dressed to the nines in his holiday blazer. Surely he knows that he should be polite and behave himself. You arrive at the party and he disappears to play with the other kids. Then, two hours later, you watch in horror as he tears through the dining room, shirtless and screaming, and steals the entire plate of brownies.

In that moment, your kid looks like a monster. But I assure you, he’s not. Let’s rewind: You’ve just thrown your child, who doesn’t have a ton of social skills or a well-developed frontal lobe, into a new and awkward situation. Chances are, you also didn’t explain your expectations clearly in advance. And even if you did, well, are you sure that they were age-appropriate? “They're in a jacket that's itchy and annoying, they're with people they don't really know or maybe don't feel that comfortable with — it's not a recipe for success,” says child and teen development specialist Robyn Silverman. Yet paradoxically, “we typically expect the most of them in those times.”

I remember, when my now nine-year-old was a toddler, arriving at my mother-in-law’s house for Christmas and being mortified that my son kept picking up and playing with the glass decorations she had set up around the house. He should know they aren’t toys, I thought. Then I was like: Wait, but how would he know they aren’t toys? Sometimes we assume our kids will know things that they simply can’t. And sometimes we expect that they know better when they really don’t.

The same goes for Santa visits. We think Oh, Sallie is going to love this! Sallie, on the other hand, is thinking, WTF? Why are my parents excitedly shoving me towards this bearded weirdo and telling me to sit on his lap while another stranger takes my picture? When kids act in ways you don’t expect in response to your holiday expectations, take a step back and try to see it from their perspective. Is it really that strange that they are freaking out?

Speaking of holiday expectations, the Elf on the Shelf — as well as the notion that “Santa is watching you” — might, paradoxically, worsen your kids’ behavior rather than improve it. “Imagine someone telling you that there will be a camera on you all day and any mistakes you make will be reported to your boss or on your social media,” Bryson says. When we tell kids that they’re being monitored and that “if they are ‘bad’ they won’t get presents, that’s a lot of pressure to put on them, and it can stress them out. Stressed kids act out,” she says.

  1. Kids struggle with time, yet December is one giant countdown. And the anticipation is overwhelming.

Here’s my good friend, who’s currently at wit’s end, talking about her 4-year-old: “She understands that she gets a present every day when we light the menorah at sundown, but she has NO CONCEPT OF TIME so she asks about it every five minutes… All. damn. day. Tantrums happen. She tries to light the menorah herself. She goes to the room where she thinks I hide the presents and tears it apart.”

My kids are a little older now, but I sure remember days like these. If you’re experiencing this too, you could try incorporating visual cues. Put a calendar up on the fridge that you can refer to every time your child asks how many days are left until Christmas. Pull out a kitchen timer if your kid won’t stop asking how many minutes are left until you light the menorah. In our house, timers are practically free babysitters. My kids stare at it, watching the time tick down, enthralled.

It may also help to ease up on the holiday-related talk and rigamarole. Maybe don’t blast holiday music 24 hours a day; it’s a constant reminder of all the things your kids don’t know how to wait for. If your children can’t handle seeing the presents under the tree and not opening them RIGHT NOW OMG, consider waiting to display them until right before you can open them (and finding a damn good hiding place until then). Try to figure out what it is they’re obsessing over, and brainstorm ways to tamp the obsession down.

What if your kids act like ungrateful jerks after they’ve opened their presents? These moments can be really hard for parents, in part because they tap into our deepest insecurities that perhaps we’ve raised obnoxious, spoiled kids. But your kids aren’t terrible humans for doing this; they’ve waited all year for this moment, and it’s overwhelming and confusing for them. “They sound like they’re ungrateful, and they’re whining and crying, but it’s partly because we overdo it — and because they have no way to take that all in,” Barnard child psychologist Tovah Klein told me when I interviewed her about this for Slate. “A child gets into a kind of adrenaline rush which becomes ‘more, more, more, give me, give me, give me,’ and they can’t control it.”

Bryson also points out that it’s possible for kids to feel grateful and disappointed at the same time. “If your kid expresses disappointment, or is sad, or is pouting, don't assume they're ungrateful. It means that they're having a feeling in that moment about one particular expectation they had,” she explains. Let them experience the emotion; it’s real, and getting angry at them for having it won’t do anyone any good. And you don’t have to fix anything, either. “You don't have to go out and buy the toy. You don't have to lecture your child. You don't have to distract your child. You don't have to take away their other presents. Just reflect the feeling back, make it safe,” Bryson suggests. Maybe you say something like it looks like you’re really disappointed right now. It’s okay to feel that way. (Even if, deep down, you feel somewhat murderous because you can’t fathom how they’d feel upset.)

This year, there’s yet another reason for kids to act out, too: They may be sad that they’re missing out on normal holiday traditions. If there were no pandemic, we would have spent Christmas with my parents and my sister’s family in Florida — but alas, this year we’re not going anywhere. To counteract these understandable holiday blues (which you may be experiencing, too), brainstorm fun new activities or traditions you could enjoy at home. We bought ourselves, my parents, and my sister’s family the same Scattergories game and plan to play it over Zoom. We’re also going to do some extra baking, since donuts make everything better.

The times of year we anticipate the most sometimes turn out to be the hardest. This might be especially true in 2020. Try your best to have a little extra patience with your kids this holiday season — and a little extra patience with yourself, too.

Some housekeeping. I may tweak my newsletter delivery time over the course of the next few months. I have heard from parents that weekends might be better than weekdays, so keep an eye out for my next newsletter on a weekend!

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