Late night host Jimmy Kimmel proves ever year at Halloween that while some kids can handle loss and not getting what they want gracefully, others struggle to keep their emotions in check in his segment “I Told My Kids I Ate All Their Halloween Candy.” (See the video proof at the bottom of this article.)
And if kids can get that upset over candy, imagine how stressed out they may become if they don’t get what they want from Santa Claus for Christmas.
“We teach kids that Christmas is a time to get presents,” Natasha Sharma of NKS Therapy says. “So if it’s set up that way, then we need to tailor the expectations of [how our kids will behave]. Because yes, they will expect to receive gifts and I don’t think that’s being ungrateful.”
That’s not to say it’s OK if your child throws a tantrum or melts down because of what they find – or don’t find – under the tree. Far from it. But both Sharma and Kathy Lynn, of Parenting Today, say there are ways for parents to navigate and manage the potentially fraught scenario that is a demanding child during the holidays.
The phase of children (or even young adults) expecting to get what they want whenever they want it can last as long as the first quarter of their lives, says Sharma.
“I’m speaking very generally because of course there are always exceptions,” Sharma says. “But generally the first 25 years of life are spent focusing on the self – and why not? You are alone… So I think it’s OK to place focus on yourself. But to be overly demanding and have high expectations, that’s where you run into trouble. For young people to have over-expectations in what they think they should be getting out of this world, that’s not a healthy thing.”
Lynn adds the peak for this type of demanding behaviour often happens when a child is six to eight years of age.
“They know Christmas is fun but they don’t [understand] it,” says Lynn. “It’s when they start to understand that when it’s Christmas and they’re going to get stuff, sometimes they get into the collecting rather than the appreciating.”
To help break the spiral, it’s often up to parents to teach their children to appreciate things early on.
“Parents should manage exactly what their expectations are around Christmas [with their kids well before the day comes],” says Sharma. “Christmas is setup in a way to create demand in young children and we’ve played a role in creating that expectation. So figure out what is normal and what is unacceptable behaviour.”
Sharma says that if a child’s behaviour is deemed unacceptable and/or bordering on ingratitude, try these three suggestions:
Lynn adds that parents should continue to stick with a bedtime and mealtime routine, even if children are on holiday break from school.
“When kids’ schedules are thrown off; they are thrown off,” Lynn says.
And that’s when a bad attitude may rear its ugly head.
Lynn also suggests that parents get their kids involved in the holiday planning and prep.
“There’s a lot of things that they can be doing like sealing cards to making placement tags for the table to taking coats when people come to the door,” she says. “That allows us to express our appreciation and to let them know they’re part of a process. This also puts them in a situation where they’re not just getting everything, they’re also participating.”
Lastly, get children involved in situations where they give back – for example, have them volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate old toys.
“They’ll start to understand that on the one hand sometimes some people give them stuff, and sometimes they give people stuff,” Lynn says. “Kids should not only be receiving at Christmas, but giving at Christmas as well.”
Much like the children seen in Kimmel’s Halloween segment, some children exude certain types of alarming behaviour that may signal a bigger issue (think extremes like violence or withdrawing oneself from family activities because of disappointment).
If a temper tantrum is the kid’s reaction when not getting what they want (gift or otherwise), the best thing parents can do is keep an eye on the child to make sure they don’t hurt themselves, Lynn details in a blog post. She adds that parents should not try to talk to the child right away because they won’t hear you – instead, wait a few minutes.
Next, she says, remove them from the situation and put them in a quiet room or corner. This allows the child to regain control.
But don’t try to reason with the child, parenting author Alan Kazdin tells Parents.com. “Once you’re in a situation where someone’s drowning, you can’t teach them to swim – and it’s the same with tantrums,” he says. “There nothing to do in the moment that will make things better… Once [s]he chills out, then you can talk.”
According to Kids Health, some preschoolers and older kids are more likely to use tantrums to get their way if they’ve learned the behaviour works, so don’t give into that pattern. If you do, you’ve proven the tantrum was effective. Instead, verbally praise the child for calming down and regaining control.
“Kids may be especially vulnerable after a tantrum when they know they’ve been less than adorable,” Kids Health says. “Now (when your child is calm) is the time for a hug and reassurance that your child is loved, no matter what.”
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