As the holidays approach, many parents may find themselves feeling anxious, not excited, about getting together with their families. For most of these parents, their hesitation is a result of how they and their children will be viewed by family members — especially if they have children who are big reactors and/or are slow to warm up by nature.

Children who have trouble with transitions crave predictability and don’t like change — and who are often overwhelmed by large group gatherings — may act out in these situations by retreating, resisting participating, or becoming reactive causing them to melt down over seemingly minor issues. This can lead parents to be embarrassed by their children's behavior, especially when there are other young family members around who are outgoing “angels”. The comparisons, even if not voiced aloud, are palpable, leaving parents feeling judged, misunderstood, and viewed as “bad parents who don't know how to control their children.”

With all this to consider, it’s understandable that parents go into these situations with a heavy dose of anticipatory stress. So, what’s a parent to do? We asked Claire Lerner, Psychotherapist specializing in Child Behavior & Development, for some insight. See her tips below. 


Tips for reducing the stress of family get-togethers:

1. Make some important mind shifts: You would not be alone if the tape that often plays in your head sounds something like this: "Why does my child have to be so difficult and make it so mortifying for me all the time? What's wrong with them? Why can't they be like the other kids and just have fun? I am so angry and resentful that they make me feel like a horrible parent. I just want at least one uninterrupted hour of peace and connection with my family." And, the most painful: "They make me not like being a parent."

These are thoughts I hear from parents every day. They are ashamed of these feelings about their children, and of the resentment they harbor toward other moms and dads (and in this case, their family members) who have easy kids and make parenting look like all joy and no stress. Please don't judge or berate yourself. You are human. These kids are very triggering, and parenting them is harder. Period.

The important mind shift to make is that you have a good kid who has trouble in these situations. You are not a bad parent because you have a child who has a hard time with emotional regulation. Remember this as you enter these situations. This change in mindset will position you to handle these family gatherings in a way that can reduce stress for you and your child.


2. Talk to family in advance. Start out by acknowledging their experience. This will make it more likely they will listen and be open to the perspective you share and want them to respect. This can sound like: 

  • "I know it can be hard to be around [child’s name] when we are together as a family. They have a lot of meltdowns and a hard time being flexible. I know that can make it stressful for everyone."
  • “I know you feel rejected and hurt when [child’s name]  won’t greet you and resists engaging. It's uncomfortable for me too."

Then share your perspective, along the lines of:

"[Child’s name] is a slow-to-warm-up kid by nature. They are an observer and need time to watch and familiarize (or refamiliarize) themselves before they are comfortable engaging. It isn't personal and it's not a reflection of how they feel about you. What we've learned is that it's helpful to give them space and not to pursue them; to let them know you're so glad to see them and can't wait to connect when they are ready."


3. Let your child know exactly what to expect. Tell them where you are going, who will be there, what the game plan is. Look at photos of family members they haven’t seen in awhile. Recall any fond memories of spending time with family. Knowing what to expect can reduce a lot of anxiety.


4. Resist lecturing or threatening your child ("If you have a meltdown..." ) on how important it is for them to "behave" when at Nana's or Auntie's house. Or, how they have to greet and show interest in their elders and play nicely with their cousins. These kinds of warnings set a negative tone and put kids on edge. They sense your anxiety, which only increases the likelihood they will have a hard time at the gathering.


5. Instead, start with empathy. If you have a slow-to-warm-up child, acknowledge that greeting people can feel overwhelming, and be clear that you will never force them to kiss, hug, or even say "hello" (which, by the way, you can't force anyway since it's their voice!). For big reactors, acknowledge that big gatherings can make them feel revved-up and make it hard for them to feel calm and make good choices with their voice and body.


6. Brainstorm strategies for coping: For a slow-to-warm-up child, options for greeting might be to wave, blow a kiss, make a drawing to give to them upon arrival (that you may have to hand over if your child is hesitant), or, to bring a favorite book or toy to share with them. 

You will have explained to your family that your child will need time to engage, that you have given them some alternative ways to greet people, and that it's best to give them space versus pursuing them, which will likely make him more reticent and resistant. 

It may help to hand your mom/dad one of your child's favorite books and suggest they start reading. That can be a "soft opening" that draws your child to them.

For big reactors, who are more likely to "act out," make a plan for how you will help them in difficult moments. Anticipate likely triggers, and try things like: 

  • Establish a minimum amount of time for staying for the meal and bring a toy from home your child can play with quietly on the side. 
  • Come up with a cue word to signal to your child that you see they are starting to get agitated and to make unsafe choices — It means it's time to pause and problem-solve.   
  • Take a walk, or give your child a break 

These are supportive and sensitive ways to show your child that you are on their side and that you want to help them stay with the group in a positive way. 


7. Most importantly, avoid shaming your child. "Why can't you share nicely with your cousins?" "Stop bossing everyone around. Nobody is going to want to play with you." "Why won't you just go play with the other kids?" 

These responses are personal put-downs that increase children's negative feelings about themselves which leads to further dysregulation and acting out. It also sends the message to your child that you are unhappy with and disappointed in them, which increases their anxiety and distress. When kids feel bad about themselves on the inside, they act "bad" on the outside. Instead, position yourself as a problem-solving partner:

  • "Two kids, one truck! How can we solve this problem?"
  • "It sounds like your cousins want to have a say in what role they play in the game. Can I help you guys figure out how you might take turns?”
  • "It can be hard to join in with your cousins whom you haven't seen for a while. Let me know if you want my help to find a way to play with them that's comfortable for you."


The most important thing to keep in mind is that these are already very stressful situations for your child. Pressure and judgment only increase stress and acting out. Taking a supportive approach reduces this stress and makes it more likely that your child will adapt and come to enjoy these gatherings. We hope these strategies result in less stress and more joy with your little ones this holiday season.