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  • Dr. Amber Ufford

Helping you and your child cope ahead for the holidays

The holidays are almost here, and while there may be a lot of joy during this time, it can also be a very stressful time. Unfortunately, many parents notice that their children’s behavior problems worsen during the holidays. Things may look different with shiny decorations just begging for little hands to touch them. Daily routines and structure can change due to school breaks or traveling, which can be both exciting and confusing for children. As adults, we may be feeling stressed about all that needs to get done and our little ones can pick up on this. And this year, with illnesses like COVID, RSV and the flu to consider, how you celebrate the holidays may be different than how you would like, contributing to the stress felt by parents and children alike.

A great way to prepare for the holidays is to practice the skill of coping ahead, which is commonly taught in CBT and DBT. You can learn more about this skill more generally in my post here. Identifying the stressful situation coming up and planning out how you will cope can be a great strategy to surviving the holidays.

Coping ahead may be as simple as building in an extra 10-15 minutes to your morning routine to account for things like finding and putting on mittens, hats, coats, and boots, to ensure that everyone gets out of the house prepared for colder weather. Or coping ahead could be more structured, such as considering how to help your child deal with the transition between school and winter break, preparing for large family gatherings, or traveling across the country. Here are a few specific situations that I think deserve to be highlighted:


Whether you are flying, driving, or taking a train, traveling during the holidays can be exhausting. Add in children to this mix, and it can feel like you’re juggling meltdown after meltdown. One way to reduce the stress on yourself as a parent is to anticipate what problems or stressors might arise, and identify possible solutions that may help you address them. Whether that be traveling with a child prone to carsickness, navigating an unfamiliar airport during a layover, or just trying to get out of the house on time, having a plan is key. You will want to identify any hiccups in your plan, including any difficult emotions (yours or your child’s) that may get in the way of effective behavior, and then come up with specific strategies or skills that may help you navigate these hiccups (e.g., bringing a change of clothes in case of carsickness or blowouts, looking up airport restaurants in advance, making a playlist for the car ride to relieve whininess). Keeping a sense of humor and sense of adventure doesn’t hurt, either. Traveling can be stressful for children also! To alleviate some of this stress, take time a few days before you travel to prepare your child for what to expect. In an age-appropriate way, explain where you will be going, why, and how. You might even write or draw out when you will be traveling on a calendar that is visible and accessible to your child with them. Assure your child that you will help them pack all the things they will need for the trip, such as their favorite stuffed animal. Bring activities, games, and snacks for the flight or ride, and space out when you distribute them so that your child doesn’t exhaust their options halfway through the trip. If you’re traveling to or staying with family that you don’t see often, it can also be helpful to review with your child behavior expectations and play options. Balance out what isn’t allowed by highlighting what is allowed, and be sure to praise your child for being flexible and respectful once you are there. Example: “We’re going to grandma’s for Thanksgiving. Grandma’s house has different rules than at home, such as no running in the halls and no markers in the living room. But, I checked with grandma and she said that you can run around outside and can totally color with your markers in the kitchen! Let’s go pick out the coloring books you can bring to grandma’s house!”

Large family gatherings

Food and eating worries

Grief during the holidays

Winter Break transition

One of my favorite ways to cope ahead for the holidays with children is to keep and maintain a routine of special time. Special time is 1-1 time that you spend with your child playing with them, connecting, and enjoying their company, for just 5-10 minutes a day. Try having special time around the same time each day, regardless of how your child behaved. This predictable routine can actually reduce behavior problems and can also be a great reminder as parents to slow down during this stressful time.

I hope you found these tips helpful! Here’s to getting through the holidays feeling ready for the new year!

P.S. -- Want to learn more about special time? Stay tuned for a blog post soon on what it is and how to do it!

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