If children had to define paradise, they’d very likely say just one word: Christmas.
Because Christmas promises every child’s dream: Oodles of toys and sweets, holidays from homework and school, exciting events spanning the full range from Santa to panto, extended family coming over, visits to other houses, movies on TV, late bedtimes, rules relaxed.
Hands down, from any child’s perspective, Christmas is the most exciting time of year. But excitement is a huge feeling and, ratcheted up too high, it can tip children into difficult-to-manage emotions with predictable consequences for how a child might behave.
Christmas is also arriving earlier every year. “It’s now almost two months long, from just after Halloween — a really long time in a child’s life,” says psychotherapist Bethan O’Riordan, who specialises in parenting support. “Children don’t have the capacity or life experience to switch off. They can’t rationalise that ‘it’s a month away, I’ll park it in my mind and come back to it’.”
What adds to the agitation is that Christmas throws families together — with repercussions for children. “As adults, being with family is one of the most complicated things we can do — children pick up on that,” says O’Riordan.
She also sees a “really unhealthy” focus on children being well-behaved. “It’s best to move away from a narrative about being good — ‘or Santa won’t bring, or they won’t get’. It’s enormous pressure on children.”
Child and adolescent psychotherapist Denise Enright sees a seasonal constellation of factors building to push children’s excitement over the edge. “There’s the stripping of routine and all the extras — sugar, noise and stimulants.
“There’s a bit of the unknown — not knowing what to expect. Children can be over-tired, overwhelmed. And also Christmas can be a highly emotive time for adults, which impacts on children too.”
O’Riordan says managing children’s over-excitement comes back to how parents present things. “Coming up to Christmas, we have to watch how much we stimulate children because their excitement goes up and up and often explodes in behaviours parents don’t want to see. It’s about helping make those really excited feelings safe.”
Parents set the emotional tone for the family, she says. She recommends not putting yourself under pressure to have a wonderful Christmas. “The Christmas after I had my third baby — he was three months old by then and I also had a two-year-old and a one-year-old — we had chicken goujons and chips... There was no pushing sprouts around the plate.
“That was the best I could do. We had a great time because all children want is to be with their parents.”
With her children now aged 8, 9, and 11, O’Riordan says parents don’t realise how much downtime children need. “Try not to stuff their days with people and activities — even if you think these are nice Christmassy things to do. Have a plan of what downtime looks like in your house: TV is great, board games, books, cooking, colouring.
“I take a pack of cards and sit at the table with a cup of tea and I see who comes. Someone always does. Or I sit with a book or magazine. They come and we chat, or they might do the same, or they might say ‘Mum, come on, we’ll do such and such’.”
Vincent McDarby, president of the Psychological Society of Ireland, agrees. Dr McDarby recommends avoiding practices that get children dysregulated. “When children are tired or hungry, they get upset very easily. The same happens when you disrupt their routine a lot when you remove predictability in the day and bombard them with stimulation from all sides — ‘oh Granny’s here, and then we’re going to do…’.”
He recommends structure, routine and time out during the day to do relaxed things.
Enright says excitement is a lovely feeling — but a very big one. “It’s really tricky for children to manage. Excitement generates strong body sensations — butterflies in the tummy, increased heart rate, sweaty palms. It has an impact on the nervous system and on brain function.
“The smaller children are, the harder it is to manage.”
Being aware of our emotional state as parents and anticipating when your child might need support, helps, says Enright, who has tips to calm down children’s tricky-to-handle emotions:
- If you’re in a noisy environment, give your child a break, even if it’s just to go to the toilet;
- A snack/drink calms the nervous system. “When we’re eating and drinking, we breathe differently. Chewing regulates us. Give a straw to drink though — they breathe deeper. I would also breathe a bit deeper around them.”
It’s generally pretty clear when your child has reached tipping point. But every parent must be their child’s detective — because each child has their own point of tolerance, says O’Riordan. “A classic sign they’ve reached tipping point is when logic goes out the window. You try to rationalise and it doesn’t work. From a brain development point of view, that’s normal — children get stuck in the feeling part of their brain.”
Other signs include tiredness, fidgeting, rocking, asking lots of questions — a big sign your child’s brain is in overdrive. But for some children, agitation might look different.
“They might shut down a bit, freeze or go very quiet.”
Over-excitement, says Enright, is when the feeling gets a bit too big to manage.
“A hyper-arousal state can show up in being too physical or impulsive, over-reaction to a small thing, whining, talking over and interrupting, general inability to listen or follow instruction — all of which can be interpreted as ‘bad behaviour’.”
So what to do if on Christmas Day — extended family all sitting down to the turkey and ham — your child has a major tantrum? “Children have difficulty regulating emotion. The brain’s frontal lobe is the last part to develop — it doesn’t fully develop ’til they’re 24 or 25,” says McDarby.
He explains children learn emotional regulation through co-regulation. “It’s when parents and the adults around children model regulation of emotion.
“If you react by getting angry, you’re teaching children the best way to manage big emotions is with more big emotions.”
Enright says it is helpful to see children’s behaviour as a way of
communicating to us. “This supports us to respond better. Our child is actually struggling, they’re not trying to misbehave, they can’t manage themselves. So we see they need our support, rather than having a reactive power struggle and giving out.”
O’Riordan’s youngest “bawls every year because Santa doesn’t get him everything he wants”. Yet, she says, in life, we experience no much more often than we experience yes. “If parents can hang back — tolerate and accept this is where your child is at, even if it looks messy — not take it personally, that’s the best we can do.” Parents, she says, have “a wonderful opportunity to make a difficult emotion safe” for children — and this can be done through connection. “Which can mean anything from doing the dishes together to sitting outside their room while they cry. Being there is enough and acknowledging ‘they’re not OK in the moment’, rather than seeing the behaviour as disrespect or ingratitude.”
And if everything has gone really well all Christmas Day — or on any other busy day during the holidays — and your child comes home and has a big tantrum, don’t be alarmed, says Enright. “They’ve been over-excited, they’ve managed it really well and they come home and the full impact on them gets released. It’s quite normal for a huge meltdown to happen in the aftermath of an exciting event.”
Mum to a five-year-old girl and two-year-old boy, Enright also believes in weaving in moments of calm after big exciting events.
“If there’s been a big burst of excitement in the house, follow it with some quiet time — watch a familiar cartoon that settles them, give them a snack/drink. Because when there’s a peak, there must then be calm.”
- Denise Enright and primary schoolteacher Úna Ryan recently launched Mind Moments, a collection of prompt cards that offer a simple, research-based four-step model to support the emotional development and wellbeing of children. See reminded.ie