The countdown is on.
In just one short week, the Christmas festivities will officially begin.
Cue the fun-filled memories of happy children cooperatively building a toy land around the Christmas tree and the entire family sitting harmoniously at the table, drinking coffee and cocoa, passing around the cookies and pie, discussing yet another joyous year of life.
At least this is the picture that all of those holiday songs paint for me, and for some families, this truly is a wonderful time of year filled with joy and gratitude, but if you’re like most of the families I’ve met on my journey, the above paragraph reads more like cue the…
- eye rolls from countless family members who judge your parenting when your strong-willed kid doesn’t do exactly as she’s asked…
- anger and embarrassment (and subsequent argument with your mother) when your strong-willed child decides he’s got better things to do than stand still and smile for the family picture and he sabotages every…single…shot…
- complaints from your nieces and nephews who shout in unison to make sure you know your strong-willed child isn’t playing nicely.
For families of strong-willed children, this seems more like the reality. Spending time with family and friends during this season can be exhausting when it seems like every gathering brings new arguments and attitude from your strong-willed child.
And because the season can be so filled with festivities, from church programs and concerts to dance recitals and charity events, your strong-willed child’s behaviors might just be a little more deflating than they are during the rest of the year.
To make this Christmas one for the memory bank (you know, the kind you look back and remember fondly, not the kind you wish you could forget), try these simple yet very effective steps to help you and your strong-willed child survive the holiday season with as few power struggles as possible.
Talk About Expectations
Before the hectic festivities begin, talk about your expectations for the events.
When we get there, I’d like to take a picture of you with great-grandma and all of your cousins.
We need to eat lunch first, and then after everyone is done, then we can open presents.
You might be thinking, “but Emily, I always tell him what I expect of him and that just challenges him to fight back more!”
I suggest that you talk about expectations not so much for the benefit of their behavior (i.e. I don’t expect them to do these things because you’ve asked them to), but instead because I know (from talking to plenty of strong-willed kids), that they don’t like being surprised by new information that isn’t their idea. If you want to take a picture with grandma, you better make sure he knows about it before you show up to the gathering because if you try to get him to stop playing Mario Kart with his cousins because you want that picture, you’re going to wish you hadn’t.
If you’ve talked about it ahead of time, you can say, “Ok, remember how I wanted to get a picture of great-grandma and you kids? Let’s get that done right now so that you can go play with your cousins, because I know that’s really important to you.”
Respect the Need for Control
The back and forth, from house to house, at holiday time can be exhausting for everyone. For strong-willed people, being out of one’s comfort zone for too long can really wear a person down and result in some desperate attempts for control. If your strong-willed kid is social and enjoys a lot of change, he might do fine, but if your strong-willed child is more shy and needs some down time, you’re going to want to make sure she gets it otherwise everyone’s holiday will be ruined…and I do mean everyone’s!
Talk with your kid ahead of time about what she wants to do to have some control over her time spent with family. You know your kid best, so you’ll know what to ask about, but for some hints, consider these examples:
- If your kid doesn’t like to be touched, talk about what he could do to respectfully keep his distance (because this time of year is filled with hug, kisses, and plenty of unwanted squeezes while the adults talk about how big the kids have gotten this year)
- You know your kid absolutely hates a type of food that will be served at the gathering. Let her know that it’s the holidays and she doesn’t have to eat anything that she doesn’t like (no matter how many times grandma or auntie says she has to)
- The gathering is at your house and you know that your kid has a difficult time sharing his favorite toys. Develop a game plan for where to store the toys that he cares most about, to make sure that they aren’t accessible to others
There are plenty of other examples that I don’t need to mention because every person has his or her thing. Just take some time to reflect on who your kid is and to talk about this with her. You might be surprised to find out that you have some controlling tendencies that you utilize during stressful events like the holidays, but they’ve become unconscious habits to you. Talking about these things with her shows you that you respect her needs, and it helps her to develop those habits that will help her to tolerate these gatherings for years to come.
Believe me, just having the conversation that indicates that you know these things are important to her will go a LONG way!
Respect & Correct
It’s inevitiable, at one point or another during the gathering, your child is going to do something that warrants correction. Your goal—when there’s an audience—is to de-escalate the situation and move on. Often times, a strong-willed child’s behavior is just the starting point. The reaction that we—as parents or onlooking adults—have can change the behavior from a mild bump in the road to the event that destroys Christmas (and is forever burned into your brain as the worst Christmas ever).
When your child exerts his strong wills, which he will, the goal is to react in a way that de-escalates the situation, not one that pushes both of you over the edge. To do this, make sure you remember to respect first and correct second (because a strong-willed child who thinks you’re ignoring his feelings has no intention to listen to a word you’ve said).
Here are a few examples:
Charles: I hate cranberries. I’m not eating them and you can’t make me.
Mom: It’s Christmas and we can choose to eat only what we like today. We can pass the cranberries along and there’s no need to tell everyone what we think about them.
This response is much more de-escalating than a response that calls out the child in front of everyone for disrespecting aunt Janice’s cranberry salad.
Mom: Just stand right there next to grandma so we can take your picture.
Adelyne: I don’t want to. I’m not going to smile.
Mom: I know, it’s frustrating that adults want to get all of these pictures when you’d rather be playing. Once I get a good one of you and grandma—with smiles—then I promise you can play and I won’t ask for another picture.
You’d be surprised to see what kind of response you get from announcing that you understand the underlying feeling behind the behavior. The fact that you understand how she’s feeling and you want to respect that can influence her to do what you’ve asked her to do much more than calling her out for arguing with you in front of everyone.
Evelyn: Auntie Meg! Jackson’s cheating!
Jackson: I am not…I’m not going to play anymore. This game is stupid anyway.
Meg: The game’s not going well, huh? I’ve never played this game before, so I don’t know how to play. Can you guys teach me how to play?
Sometimes, it pays to have your kid’s back. Jackson may very well have been cheating, but strong-willed kids have a target on their back. Other kids notice that they get into trouble more often, so they’re easy to blame for any problems that come up, and sometimes they just need their parents to have faith in them.
A response such as this one can lead Meg to understanding what happened in a way that tells her son that she believes in him and isn’t going to jump to conclusions any time someone cries wolf.
These three tips don’t have to be the only techniques you use to survive those holiday gatherings. Before you hit the road for those holiday gatherings, don’t forget to review the techniques in my free guide to remember how to set limits, provide consequences (if needed) and de-escalate intense power struggles in case you find yourself faced with those challenges this holiday season.
(Remember, The Narrator Technique can go a LONG way and help you to de-escalate power struggles and keep those judgmental stares at bay, so don’t be afraid to use that as your lifeline if you get stuck this holiday season!)
If you don’t have your free copy of those techniques, you can find them here.
What did you think? Did you try any of these techniques to survive your holiday gatherings (or another stressful time) with your strong-willed child? Leave a comment below telling me how it went.