When Big Days Blow Up on You: Preventing holiday meltdowns

by John Hoffman

Not that I want to be a Grinch during the season of good cheer but…

Here’s one of the less pleasant realities of being a parent of little kids. Sometimes the days that you really, really want to go well are the ones that really, really, really don’t go well. You know, like Christmas.

Everyone is looking forward to the big day. It’s supposed to be a happy time. And sometimes it all works out. But other times things don’t go so well. One of the kids gets over excited, or has a little disappointment that gets blown out of proportion. Or maybe she can’t sit through a long family dinner, or whatever. Then, boom! You’re dealing with a meltdown. And to make it worse, you’re extra upset about having to deal with a tantrum on Christmas Day. So now you’re mad about being mad. Not what you had in mind for the holiday season. But it’s a normal parenting experience.

Big days (not just Christmas) are the perfect breeding ground for tantrums. Kids are out of their normal routine. They are often short of sleep. They don’t eat normally. They are revved up emotionally. Sometimes  they spend a lot of time either cooped up in cars or having to control themselves in situations that are not kid-friendly. That burns up their inner energy. And when little kids’ inner energy is gone, that’s when tantrums happen.

The good news is that you can do something about it. The best strategy for tantrums is prevention. It’s not foolproof, but it often works. Basically, preventing tantrums boils down to reducing the amount of stress your child experiences and helping them recover from small stresses that can’t be avoided.  Virtually all tantrums are cases of stress overload. How do you prevent stress overload?  Start by looking after your child’s basic needs: sleep, nutritious food, physical activity, time for play and one-on-one time with you (or your partner or other adults who care about them).


Children often go short of sleep on Christmas Eve or night. You can help them get a little more sleep by spending extra time with them at bedtime, reading more stories than usual, playing quiet music or lying down with them after lights out. I remember lying down with my 5-year-old son one Christmas Eve. His body was literally quivering with excitement and tension. Who could go to sleep when they feel like that? I spent much longer with him than usual that night, but he eventually fell asleep. It would have taken much longer if I’d left him on his own.


Lots of little kids don’t eat much at big family dinners. I’m not sure why, but I’ve seen it happen over and over again. Often the child not “eating his dinner” becomes a source of tension. My answer? Give your kid a healthy snack  (something they like) in the late afternoon and don’t worry about what they eat at dinner. Cut-up apple, cheese and whole wheat crackers were my families go-to healthy snack. The healthy calories give them a bit of inner strength to help them get through the rest of the day.

Physical Activity

It is becoming clearer and clearer that, along with all its other benefits, exercise and physical activity can prevent behaviour problems. That’s because physical activity does good things for the brain as well as the body. It’s a stress reliever. So do something active with your kids at some point on big days. I know anfamily who always took their young kids for a hike in the woods on the afternoon of Christmas day. Smart.


You’ve heard of time-out. I’m a big fan of time-in. This means spending time where you focus on your child – no texting, no multi-tasking, no conversations with other adults. Just you and your kid, doing something your child wants to do.  This kind of one-on-one time helps kids feel good inside – not just emotionally, but also physically. It can also prevent the build-up of little stresses that often leads to meltdowns. One dad I know told me a story about leaving the table with his two-year-old in the middle of a Christmas dinner. It wasn’t a punishment. But he could see that his toddler starting to lose it. So this wise dad ate his dinner quickly and then took his son upstairs to a bedroom. They read stories for a while and then came back down. Good move. Long, big dinners with lots of people are not toddler-friendly.

Look after yourself

All the things I said about looking after kids? Apply them to yourself.  That puts you in the best possible frame of mind for looking after your children’s needs, enjoying them and, if it comes to that, responding in a reasonable manner when something goes wrong. If you can respond calmly to a child behaviour crisis, you’ll have the best chance of resolving the situation quickly and then helping your family’s mood get back to where you want it to be.

I wish you all the best for the season and your family’s “big days.” Just remember that a little attention to prevention is your best friend.

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