The holidays can be a trying time for most parents, but when you are dealing with defiance, tantrums, and disrespect on a daily basis, the idea of layering on the "stress of the season" can bring any Mom or Dad to tears. Here are some strategies for surviving:
1. Lower your expectations.
The holidays are romanticized as "the most wonderful time of the year." People want to cook the perfect holiday meals, give the perfect, thoughtful, and expensive gifts, and spend perfect, loving, peaceful, and joyful family time together.
This level of perfection is quite a lot to live up to!
So let yourself (and your child) off the hook if it isn't happy-happy-joy time 24/7. Let yourself off the hook if you want to cook a holiday meal with fewer fancy side dishes, or even if you want to (gasp!) order Chinese takeout. Simplify gift-giving to a task that is fun and manageable. Maybe shopping is your thing, and it's always a good time, no matter what. Maybe you hate the mall, and all you are up for this year is I-Tunes gift cards for everyone. That is ok! Give yourself permission to scale back this year. You have a lot going on.
And you know what? If your family is struggling with peace and joy the first 3 weeks of November, chances are, there won't be a miracle that drastically changes how you all get along the last week of November. Let your child off the hook if their behaviors don't change over night. This doesn't mean their consequences change or disappear, just that you are not especially upset with them because "it's Christmas for Christ's sake!" Also be aware that some children's problems will worsen around the holidays because there are so many changes in routine (see #4) and so much increased parental stress (see #2 and #5).
2. Give yourself permission to grieve.
The holidays are often a time of deep grieving, because of all the idealism we just discussed. It's a time of year that we wish for miracles and believe they *just might* come true. This might be a time where you feel more intensely sad that your child is struggling. You might wish, hope, and dream of a more peaceful or happy child this time of the year. It's normal.
Give yourself permission feel sad, hopeless, angry, tired and burnt out. Give yourself permission to occasionally not even like your child. Most parents with children who are struggling feel this way at some point. It doesn't make you a bad parent; it makes you a human being. When you first held your child in your arms and dreamt of a future for her, you didn't imagine this. You saw happy holiday scenes spent laughing together, cuddling by the fireplace, etc. You are now grieving the loss of this dream.
The important thing is to acknowledge it and "feel your way through it." It is okay to not feel like singing and dancing around the kitchen while you frost perfect sugar cookies in the shape of reindeer. It is okay make a few hours for yourself to hide under the covers and cry and wish that things were different. You are certainly not alone in your grief this time of year! Reach out to others who will validate your pain without asking you to "cheer up" because of the date on the calendar. When we push down or avoid our sad or angry feelings, they just grow and build up inside us. When we feel our way through them and let our feelings out, we create room for joy, strength, and hope.
3. Prepare your extended family for the worst.
You may be spending time with extended family that you see only a couple of times each year. If this is the case, they may have no idea that your child is struggling. Help them understand prior to the big visit. Help them understand how long the problems have been going on, the severity of the issues, what you've tried, what your current strategies are in terms of responding to the problems, and what they can do (or not do) in order to support you and your child.
Now, I know what you might be thinking: "This isn't their business. I don't want them judging my child or looking down on him." If that is the case, do you really need the added stress of being around people that you fear will be judging you and your child? Is this really the best plan for the holidays this year? Are you getting together out of desire or obligation?
Trying to hide your child's very real struggles is not going to work. All it will do is increase your family's confusion and give them more opportunities to give you well-meaning advice (perhaps with a side of judgement). It also gives your child more latitude to behave badly, since they will know that they have the upper hand.
Give your family a chance to be part of the solution instead of further complicating the problem. Give each person a role and a job. Help all the adults get on the same page so that your child isn't confused by mixed messages from Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, and Cousins. If you can't have this conversation, I recommend doing the holidays without extended family this year.
4. Keep routines the same, as much as possible.
The holidays offer a lot of deviation from routines. School is out. Families travel or have house guests. There are special parties, events, and excursions. For some of us, this feels exhilarating and exciting, but for close to 100% of troubled children, these changes feel deeply threatening to their sense of security. And when kids feel insecure, they are more likely to act out and struggle.
Minimize changes to bedtime, mealtime, and other important routines. If you travel, don't leave your daily routines at home. If at home, at bedtime you brush teeth, read 2 stories, sing a song and have lights out- then by all means do that at Grandma's house, too! Anything you can do to provide continuity, predictability and structure to your day, do it.
Of course there will be events you can't and won't want to skip, but you don't have to go to every single holiday party. Consider your child's threshold for socializing and for changes in their daily routine when you plan your holiday events.