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7 Strategies for Parenting Difficult Kids at the Holidays

Parenting difficult kids at the holidays comes with an added level of stress. No parent is perfect, and kids get rambunctious at the holidays. While all children get sensory overload at the holidays, the more sensitive or challenging kids can struggle even more.

That makes the most wonderful time of the year not so wonderful sometimes. Since most families can’t fly off to Jamaica to avoid holiday craziness, some simple tips and strategies can help you survive.

Plan for Routine Changes

More than any other prevention strategy, planning in advance for changes in routine can reduce meltdowns and tantrums over the holidays. While sticking to a routine is ideal, it isn’t realistic during the holidays. Between school parties, family events, travel, and gift giving, non-routine activities occur that can create stress.

As the parent, you can set your child or teen up for success by letting them know the schedule in advance and giving time warnings whenever possible. While last minute special events may seem like a fun idea, sticking to the game plan helps sensitive and difficult kids succeed because surprises can stress some children. Even if you think that they’re missing out on a special holiday event, focusing on their success by planning helps the whole family.

Managing Sleeptime

Sleep routines differ from daily schedules. The holiday season packs many events into a short time, meaning that children might not be able to stick their normal sleep routine which might mean they are tired and crabby at times.

When you know the regular bedtime schedule will be altered, you can try to increase downtime during the day. Incorporate quiet moments at home such as reading, sensory art, watching a show with a weighted or heavy blanket into the day. If children aren’t getting enough sleep, encourage some relaxing activities or adjust your response to the problems that come with hyper behaviors.

Set Social Expectations

The holidays means a lot of interacting with people kids that aren't known well. Managing family expectations and social conditions is critical for a smooth experience. Not only do you need to prepare your kid for your relatives, but you need to make sure your relatives understand your kid’s needs.

The first step to social success is asking your child what they think the expectations are. This allows you to process together what “it looks like” and gives children an opportunity to visualize expectations. Also, this process addresses concerns before the event or activity. Sometimes a little preemptive communication and planning can go a long way in reducing potential conflict.

If you know your Aunt Sally is a stickler for manners, do a dry run of sitting at the grown-up table with your child. Once you and your child have practiced the social skill, explain to Aunt Sally the impact of excitement on Josh’s hyperactivity.

For example, you might say, “He is so excited to be with his cousins and spend time with you that it makes controlling his brain difficult.” For children who are easily overwhelmed by a lot of people, you may want to explain to relatives in advance that, “Jenny has Autism and that means she might cry easily, so give her little space if she gets upset.”

In terms of school, try to make sure that teachers also understand your child’s needs. While having an IEP or 504 plan ensures the appropriate education strategies, holiday school events can trigger out-of-norm behaviors.

Making sure that the adults in your school understand how these activities will impact ADHD, autism, defiant behavior, or other disorders can set everyone up for better social relationships. Ensuring that teachers recognize your child’s signs helps keep the anger, frustration, control, pressure, or anxiety leading to social issues from impeding in-school success.

Address Sensory Input

The holidays come with a lot of “stuff” that send kids (and adults too) into sensory overload. Often, parents focus on the immediate effect overstimulation can have on kids’ behavior, but sensory input can have a lingering effect So, even though your child did pretty good at the party last night and went to bed on time, the next day they were very emotional because of the party noise, different food textures, and constant stimulation.

Before attending a holiday event, find solutions to reduce sensory stimulation. For children with noise sensitivities, ear protection may help at the school holiday show. For a child who finds people overwhelming, bring a favorite board game or LEGO bricks to help your child find calm at the family party of 62 people.

Vigorous exercise before an overstimulating event can help some children while others need quiet time before an activity. Trust your parent sense to think about what your child’s sensory needs are before, during, and after each activity.

Deal With Overexcitement

The holidays cause a lot of excitement. Kids get their toy catalogs in early November and get over excited about playing with new toys. This hypervigilance on their stuff causes them to constantly question if they can have this toy or that game.

Aside from the materialism associated with holidays, kids hyperfocus on when a holiday event will occur. This excitement can cause children to get emotionally overwhelmed.

For some children, this leads to stress and anxiety over whether they will get a certain toy or over who will be at a family celebration. Parents expect kids to handle this calmly, but some cannot manage their big emotions, especially rigid or difficult kids.

If you streamline activities or plan in advance, you can lessen the worries. When it comes to the materialism of the holidays, try not to tie behavior to presents since that can exacerbate concerns for kids who are struggling with self-regulation.

Focus on Holiday Nutrition

Although most people recognize the benefits of healthy eating to encourage brain and behavior integration, holiday nutrition challenges the whole family. Kids’ behavior is especially impacted by what they eat, as they are behavioral beings who show how they are feeling. For example, chocolate, with its high sugar content and caffeine will increase hyperactivity.

Thankfully, many appetizing healthy food and drink options exist. The key is having them readily available. Good nutrition with consistent protein can help combat the changes in sleep and daily schedules by boosting nutrients to encourage brain and body development.

Even when you are visiting friends, try to bring healthy foods that all kids will eat. This not only encourages and reinforces healthy eating habits by supporting the brain and body, but it also keeps children from feeling left out of the holiday fun when eating well.

Overcome Grumpy Behaviors

Planning in advance for the schedule, sensory needs, social interactions, expectations, and healthy eating are ways to be proactive rather than reactive to effectively help avoid meltdowns and grumpiness. Despite your best efforts, however, your kid will still sometimes turn into Mr. Grinch. Using positive parenting tools rather than harsh discipline can help your child to focus on positive experiences to reframe their thinking.

When kids get hung up a toy that broke or something that didn’t work, try to focus them on a positive aspect of the activity and break out of their negative mindset. If a full-on tantrum happens, comforting the child in the least reactive way possible can help reduce tantrum time.

Sometimes, holding a child helps while other times, they need to be moved to another room to cry it out. Each child is different; meaning there are no right or wrong answers here, just what works best for your child at that moment.

The most important advice, however, is to, remember that parents aren’t perfect but being organized and trying to be calm can keep behaviors from escalating.

If that isn’t possible? A mommy or daddy timeout works too.

And don’t forget, what kids will remember is the experiences they have, so try to be present and make the most of each moment.

To make an appointment with Dr. Roseann call 203.438.4848 or email [email protected]


Dr. Roseann is a Psychologist who works with children, adults, and families from all over the US, supporting them with research-based and holistic therapies that are bridged with neuroscience. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and is a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS) and Epidemic Answers. She is also a member of the American Psychological Association (APA), National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), Connecticut Counseling Association (CCA), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

©Roseann-Capanna-Hodge, LLC 2019

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