Taming Toddler Tantrums During The Silly Season

Written by Genie Price

Disrupted travel schedules and travelling with little ones plus the sheer excitement of the holidays can easily bring about a recipe for tears, tantrums and meltdowns. Although Christmas is a happy time, having either a “sensory” child or a spirited and impulsive toddler, can turn this time into one of the most trying.

How can parents manage life and minimise meltdowns to maximise memories over the festive season?

Tantrum versus Meltdown: 

Doctor Sue Larkey, the Author of The ultimate guide to school and home: Key Strategies for all ages, explains a tantrum as a deliberate act to behave a certain way: to gain attention or manipulate others, whereas a meltdown, is seen as an emotional and often, behavioural response to a stressful situation.

With unfamiliar environments, routines and people around at Christmas time – this can be a prime breeding ground for either of the two to occur.

Why? 

Whether it be a tantrum or a meltdown, a toddler’s response to a situation has often seen parents labelled as “bad” – however, this is not the case.

Reasons for either occurrence: 

  1. Hunger, tiredness and communication:

A toddler’s most common response to a stressful situation may be triggered by one of or all of:

  • Hunger
  • Tiredness
  • Lack of communication skills

When a toddler is either hungry or tired, the response will likely be a loud one.

Identify times where this happens more often and decrease the chances of a tantrum or meltdown, in advance.

For example: if you have to go to the grocery store – give your child a snack before you leave the house.

Following close behind hunger or tiredness is a lack of communication skills. If your toddler is new to talking – the pure frustration and lack of ability to “tell you” the need/want – can be testing.

  1. Higher expectations: 

Adults unknowingly place higher expectations on their toddlers and children to behave better and more appropriately in places where it is unfamiliar, which can place stress on them.

Toddlers and young children’s confidence soar and anticipation towards these special times – Christmas and birthdays, is higher. When hopes are high – both children and adults feel disappointment much more acutely if it goes bad.

  1. Unfamiliar people and places:

When we are surrounded by unfamiliar family in our own home, it can cause an overwhelming response for some. The lack of attention for your toddler may result in them practising attention seeking behaviours, which are inappropriate – as they feel the need to fight for it.

  1. Fear and Anxiety: Causing Stress:

Unfortunately, some toddlers show genuine fear surrounding Christmas (including of the jolly man himself), and just as common, fear towards new sounds, sights and people.

Emotional responses to both fear and anxiety are usually unknown territory to a toddler, therefore may come as a complete surprise, and be more challenging to deal with.

During challenging times, as parents we can help guide our wee ones emotions by: 

  • Looking for and being aware of triggers: 

If you already know that your toddler will kick and scream at the sight of new people – tell your guests in advance and prepare.

Perhaps do a meet and greet in a neutral space, such as a park, leading up to Christmas day, introduce your child and allow them to “hang” with them and play. This could help eliminate any fears from all parties, particularly your child for on the day.

  • Stick to your routine:

Your toddler is relying on you to stick to a predictable routine. This helps with regulating tiredness and helps nurture healthy meal times and sleep/bed-time habits.  Even though it’s Christmas day, try to keep to your regular routines as best as possible.

  • Dice up your day: 

Cut the gift opening, activities and events on Christmas day into smaller, more easily handled sections. It is not necessary to open 30 gifts all at once, this could create sensory overload. Christmas day usually is a big day – try to plan it so that it includes opening some gifts, (not necessarily all at once) and includes a play time as well as a rest period. You will find you will need to recharge.

  • Active listening

Active listening is a communication skill which, unless you have been the recipient of, or witnessed – it is one which will need to be learnt. By active listening to your toddler or child, you are getting down to their level and working it out with them, together.

During this type of communication you will:

  • Tune into feelings being expressed
  • Listen to feelings rather than assume
  • Show patience and interest with what is being displayed
  • Reflect back what you think you have heard- to clarify

In situations where your child has limited communication – you can still implement the active listening strategy. However, it is slightly different in that you use body cues and body language and get them to “show” you by taking their hand and allowing them to do so.

When used effectively active listening allows you to engage in a deeper understanding of your child’s needs and requests.

  • Watch what they eat: 

It’s inevitable that the sweetest of sweets will be part of the Christmas day celebrations, however, if you know that your toddler or child get his “crank on” when fed such foods – don’t give in to temptation in that “oh but it’s Christmas” – as you could wind up with one very unhappy toddler on your hands. By keeping your toddler’s snacks throughout the day as healthy as possible, alongside plenty of sugar free fluids – little Bob, who could be a nightmare to deal with, may be just the angel you were looking for.

  • Allowing them space:

If they decide to meltdown completely, it is ok to let them have space to “have-it-out.” By leaving your toddler to cry will do two things:

  • Help their body establish a response to further help next time (hoping that there aren’t too many “next times”)
  • Show your toddler that you will not give in

This approach is not for everyone, and by all means – do as you feel comfortable, as each situation will call for different measures. However – by giving your toddler or child both time and space, it allows them to negotiate their feelings and allows the body to naturally work out how to regulate the response. It will also show your toddler that the behaviour (if it was inappropriate leading up to the tantrum) – will not be tolerated.

Toddler’s and young children are easily overwhelmed by sounds, sights and other stimuli, whether it is the loud Christmas carols, the extra guests or the scent of tinsel and gingerbread – too much of these stimuli may invoke stress. Toddlers and young children are still learning to adapt and regulate these feelings which leaves it is up to us as parents to help them understand the best response to these feelings and to help them regulate their emotions for a peaceful, stress free Christmas.