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Christmas Festivities – fun or frustration?

by ​Dr. Pam Beharry
children hanging stockings

It’s Christmas! For many it is a time full of fun, excitement, adventure and a feeling of belonging. And yet for some children and youth, Christmas can be a frustrating time of conflict, emotional meltdowns, family upset and disappointment.

What’s going on with these children and youth? Why can’t they just be grateful and appreciative?

Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child tells us that “Kids are doing the best they can” and explains how invisible learning disabilities based in neurological differences (or how their brains are “wired”) can account for some of these strange and troubling behaviours.

Greene is hoping that an understanding that some of the upset behaviours might be neurological, that is to say, based in how the brain is developing, will lead us to find calmer, more effective ways to prevent and manage them.

Greene suggests some possible ways that the brain’s “wiring” can affect behaviour. There may be deficits in the young brain’s ability to plan and problem-solve all the big and small issues that arise in a given day. Or the brain may have developed in such a way as to be more likely to have strong emotions such as depression, anxiety and aggression. Another possibility is that the child may struggle to interpret spoken and body language together, so that they misunderstand the message resulting in responses that seem insensitive to other person’s feelings or point of view. Or a person could be speaking too fast for the child to be able to keep up, so that they do not fully understand what is being said while they sort out and try to express their own thoughts and feelings.

Children with these neurologically based disabilities may be inflexible, easily provoked to anger, and may have:

  • Difficulty handling frustration resulting in emotional meltdowns; such as being overwhelmed at the sight of another child receiving a present she had wanted.
  • Sudden angry outbursts that don’t diminish in frequency even though the child apologized the last time and promised to “be good”.
  • Sudden mood swings such as a child happily engaged in Christmas baking only to fly into an ungrateful rage as soon as she is asked to clear the counter or wash the dishes.
  • Poor problem solving such as a child ranting and blaming his parents after receiving the very present he had hoped for, but without the required batteries.

Any of these scenarios can be upsetting, disappointing and embarrassing as the peace and joy of Christmas becomes shattered.

However, Greene points out that if we assume that our kids are doing the best they can and we understand that their brains are still developing, we can approach the situation in a calmer and more considered fashion. If we look for patterns in their behaviours, we may be able to prevent some of these upsets and respond to them more effectively. While some parents may hope that their child can initiate changes on his own, often it’s the parents who have to change some of their approaches to their child, or make changes to their plans to make life easier on her. While some of the strategies suggested by Greene may seem counter-intuitive, believe me, they work!

Punishment and negative consequences are often the least effective parenting strategies. Instead of the desired effect, they often create further resentment and indifference, and can make things worse. Instead, prevention is the best way to go.

  • Understand your child’s patterns and plan ahead for calm quiet activities that make fewer demands.
  • Interpret behaviours non-judgmentally: An outburst where they say “Screw you” might actually mean, “I can’t think clearly right now.” Avoid taking comments literally or personally.
  • Understand and give voice to the feelings behind the behaviours: “I know this is really disappointing. Let’s make a plan to get those batteries tomorrow when the stores are open.”
  • Learn to let less important things go, at least in the short term.
  • Keep a calm and quiet tone of voice. Use fewer words. Never try to engage in a discussion of what has happened in the midst of a meltdown. Wait until calm has returned.
  • Before a big activity or get together, let the child know what will be happening and who will be there, and ask what they need to keep things pleasant.

Planning together with yourchild before problems arise creates an atmosphere of respect, kindness and collaboration, all of which contribute to keeping the peace at Christmas time.