The Best Ways to Prevent Holiday Meltdowns (According to Experts)

Your little sugarplums may be squarely on Santa’s “nice” list—but all bets are off when they’re hungry and tired and waiting in a 45-minute line to see the Big Guy himself. Of course, teaching your child coping skills takes time, so we talked to an expert who gave us a moment-by-moment cheat sheet for handling those big emotions during the holidays. Keep reading for tips on how to keep your holiday helpers happy.

When You're Holiday Shopping

Search Engine People Blog via flickr

The Trigger: Crowds, temptation (TOYS!), overstimulation

“The holidays are kind of like going to war when you have kids,” said Kathina Firme, a California school psychologist who specializes in treating preschoolers. “Toddlers can get really overstimulated. It’s the people, the noise, the traffic. They just aren’t able to regulate themselves. You have to plan for that.”  

The Solution: Get to the stores earlier in the day to avoid crowds. Before you go in, lay out the ground rules: (i.e. if you want to allow “just one small treat," explain that they have to stay close, etc.). “You can prevent a lot of tantrums by looking at the triggers," said Firme, who worked as a consultant on a genius go-to kit called Tantrum Fix, which comes with an assortment of items to help little ones calm down, mid-meltdown (and the proper language to use before they start simmering). “Most of those things, it’s like, ‘OK you’re hungry. You’re tired. You’re uncomfortable. It’s the same as adults but it’s more exaggerated because they can’t express that.”

Another tip: “You can prevent a lot of tantrums by meeting their basic needs,” Firme said. Be sure to bring snacks, and don’t be afraid to rely on electronics. If the grocery cart is the only place you let your little one loose with an iPad, lose the guilt. If it keeps everyone happy (and it’s limited), it’s all good, Firme said.

If you've got older kids, let them help find things at the store! Give them a scavenger hunt-style list of items to find and let them cruise the aisles. (Psst—we've got some great ones!)

When You're Waiting in Line to See Santa

Photo by Mike Arney on Unsplash

The Trigger: Waiting for something exciting (OMG, Santa!). Crowds.

The Solution: Make the waiting part of the fun—play a game. Need ideas? Check out the Miami Seaquarium’s great list of line games for kids.

When You're at a Sibling's Holiday Show

Douglas Easterly via flickr

The Trigger: Boredom. Attention is on the sibling. Hunger if the show is during dinnertime hours or tiredness if the show is at night.

The Solution: Distraction—and backup. Bring something for the child to do during the show or snack on in case he gets bored (lollipops work well because they're quiet, kids love them and they last longer than, say, fruit snacks). Sit near an aisle so you or your partner can make an easy exit if your little one just can’t sit still.  

When You're at a Holiday Party

Cavalier92 via flickr

The Trigger: Overstimulation. Too many faces/people. Staying up past bedtime.

The Solution: If you know the party is going to go late, try to get your child to take a nap earlier in the day. Then, once you're at the party, try to steer end-of-the-night activities toward something more mellow (like a movie or coloring). When it's time to go, don't do long goodbyes, just get out while your kiddo is still in a good mood.

For older kids, try one of our awesome holiday scavenger hunts to keep them busy so you can mingle with the fam.

When You're Grocery Shopping/Waiting in a Checkout Line

Jaro Larnos via flickr

The Trigger: Waiting. Boredom.  

The Solution: Keep children busy while you're waiting (see above link for line games). "I Spy" is an easy go-to game for little ones—as are these free printable scavenger hunts. Let kids help do the shopping by giving them things to put in the cart, or having them load the conveyer belt when it's time to pay. Praise them for being "helpers."

When You Drop Your Child Off at School/Daycare

Tarah Tamayo via flickr

The Trigger: Anticipation of later events, parties, gifts, etc. Lack of sleep.

The Solution: Pack special "surprises" in your child's lunchbox, so she has something to look forward to during the school day. These can be special holiday snacks, a special note or a small toy (if that's OK with your child's teacher).

When You're on the Long Drive (or Flight) to Grandma's House

oddharmonic via flickr

The Trigger: Boredom.

The Solution: Plan for the trip by making a special bag of treats/activities for the drive. These can be anything from a special holiday movie to a box of tiny wrapped toys (Dollar Store toys are totally fine!). If you need more ideas, see our list of simple air travel hacks for kids.

Melissa Heckscher


The Best Ways to Prevent Meltdowns (At Every Age!)

10 Secrets to Dealing with Tantrums

How to Prepare for Holiday Air Travel Delays With Kids

Feature photo: Jessica Lucia via Flickr 


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