Family Matters: Managing those Christmas tantrums

If it happens: There are strategies to help deal with those Christmas tantrums.
If it happens: There are strategies to help deal with those Christmas tantrums.

In my last column, I talked about physical punishment (smacking) and how using this form of managing children’s behaviour can have an undesirable impact on their development and wellbeing.

These days, we know of many different ways we can teach children appropriate behaviour and it is important that parents and others caring for children are supported to learn alternative strategies and not judged for using the kinds of physical punishments they experienced when they were children.

Firstly, we need to get to know our children. Is the excitement (and sugar levels) at Christmas likely to make children over-excited, leading to tantrums and over-activity? It is easier to prevent this than manage it when it (inevitably) happens. Watch for growing levels of excitement and interpose alternatives: let’s go outside and run around where there is lots of room and you can yell as loudly as you like. Running around outside is not an option? Let’s create a space indoors and play some music and you can dance? Let’s grab a story and we’ll all sit down together and tell it. 

You’ve missed the opportunity to prevent the tantrum. Then it’s time to manage it carefully – move everyone out of the way so there is not a sniggling audience of other children giving the tantruming child lots of attention. Provide something interesting for the other children to do so that it is clear that appropriate behaviour has its rewards.

If possible, ignore the child tantruming until the energy wears down. With a very small child, you may be able to gently remove the child and put them somewhere away from any audience. With a larger child, you are much better to remove the audience, even if that is inconvenient. Calmly ask people to leave the room: “I’m sorry, it is not pleasant here right now – can we please all go into the next room where we can hear ourselves speak.”

When the tantrum is over, calmly speak to the child – you may need to save the in-depth conversation until after all your guests have gone, so in the short-term a simple comment may suffice: “You made such a noise that we had to go into the next room. We will talk about this later, but for now your grandma would feel better if you were able to apologise for hurting her ears with your yelling.”

At this point it is not worth a power struggle, so if the child does not apologise; simply leave it alone - you do not want to reward the behaviour with more attention. Encourage your guests to continue to ignore so that the message the child gets is that the tantrum absolutely did not succeed in gaining any attention, positive or negative (after all attention is attention).

After Christmas when your guests have gone and family life is getting back to normal, you will have time to think about the behaviour and you can ask yourself – what prompted the tantrum? Was there anything you could have done in how the day was organised to prevent it? Were there signals that perhaps you missed? What was it the child was hoping to gain from the tantrum? Was the child simply overwhelmed with too much excitement or was there something else (eg another child was playing with a new Christmas toy and the child did not want to share – if so then plan to teach the child how to use words to ask another child not to touch)?

If you can understand what prompted the tantrum, you can then spend time finding ways to prevent it happening again. You can teach the child other ways of managing this situation in the future. You want children to learn that tantrums don’t work, and that other strategies (using words, asking for help etc) do.

Christmas is always a time of stress as families get together, and children get over-excited and over-stimulated. Keeping enough emotional energy in reserve to manage the inevitable conflicts and tantrums will help us all get through the Christmas season happily.  Happy holiday season to all.