As the song says, “parties we’re hosting, marshmallows we’re roasting, friends come calling, kids jingle belling and mistletoe’n” — it’s the happiest time of year for most kids.
But not for all kids. For some, the joys of Christmas and fanfare of New Year’s can be difficult and overwhelming, leading some to struggle emotionally. Most times, these children will provide social cues that will help you identify if they are having issues and need support.
Some can get very emotional with siblings, cousins or friends over something that seems trivial. They may fear family gatherings, refuse to wear that new holiday outfit, have a tantrum and not recover for the rest of the day. They may refuse to smile in family photos or have trouble making eye contact with other people. Ultimately, the negative behavior from kids in distress can make family and social gathering difficult for others.
Today, we understand more about these kids and why they struggle, especially over the holidays. This time of year is hard because their routine is broken, and they are asked to adapt and adjust more often than usual. They are forced to deal with different expectations and more transitions than they have in an average day.
There are parties with dietary changes that may contain more sugar and “junk” than normal. Relatives and other house guests require kids in the comfort of their own homes to maintain their “best behavior.” New clothes appear with uncomfortable tags. People stay up later than normal. And kids get less outdoor play because it’s cold and they must “stay clean.”
A child who acts out and exhibits anxious behavior should not be confused with ‘bad behavior.’ Changes in their routine create anxiety and internal stress, and that changes behavior.
Their behavior may be influenced by the lingering primitive reflexes, or by an underdeveloped proprioceptive sense or vestibular system. This means that their behavior is often not a choice like you and I may understand it. For some children the lingering primitive reflexes and delayed functional development may cause children to struggle every day in subtle ways that are caused by the overstimulation of one side and the underutilization of the other side of their brain. We now better understand why kids behave this way and have ways to help them without medication.
For parents, we recommend the following, if you have a child who is struggling this season:
- Protect the routine by watching bedtime, wake up time, meal time. Maintain as much regular structure in their lives as possible.
- Watch the child’s diet. Parties feature lots of sugar as well as gluten and dairy products that may make some children more emotional or reactive.
- Allow the child time to deal with unfamiliar relatives and new party guests in their own way. Each child is different. Hugs and hang shakes can be encouraged but not required. Talk through some strategies before the greetings happen so kids can know what to expect as well as what is expected of them.
- Share the plan with your child to avoid surprises. Keep a calendar of upcoming events in plain sight so they have time to start thinking about what’s ahead. Have a secret signal for times that the child is starting to feel overwhelmed and a place for them to go to “regroup” if needed without a lot of fuss or discussion.
- If you know they will be at a more adult-like event where they will have to stay clean and quiet, prepare them ahead of time with lots of movement and games — make an indoor obstacle course, play twister, run around outside, jump rope, do some easy yoga. Then, make a “goodie bag” of quiet games, activities and books that will keep them occupied.
After the holidays, consider making plans to talk to a child psychologist, school counselor or other experts in the field who can provide additional support. Strides in pediatric research and best practices have helped arm professionals with tools that can help make a difference in a child’s life and those around them.