You’ve strategically placed your 4-year-old between you and your partner at the Thanksgiving table. You’ve told him all the yummy things there are to eat (sweet potatoes with actual marshmallows on top — can you even believe it?), and supplied him with books, matchbox cars, two miniature giraffes and a weird plastic alien thing he got out of the gumball machine at the diner.
You’re about to exhale when your child starts slipping down off of his chair, under the table. “But I don’t waaaant turkey for dinner,” he begins to whine. No, no, no, please not now. You feel the weight of your mother-in-law’s eyes on you. You instruct your son to get back in his seat NOW, and thrust the giraffes in his direction. It’s too late, though. He’s gone full-on boneless under the table and is headed straight into a meltdown. Why now??
The question is a good one: Why is it that young children always seem to have their worst tantrums around extended family? And is there anything we can do to change that?
The answer is pretty simple. Children have tantrums when they feel emotionally overwhelmed; in fact, that’s what tantrums are — a behavioral manifestation or expression of overwhelming emotions. And what causes young children feel most overwhelmed? Two main things:
1. A break from typical structures and routines. Children feel most calm and secure when their world is predictable, when they know what to expect, when daily routines, rituals, and structures are in place. Once you’re at a family gathering, a lot of those familiar comforts go out the window. Suddenly, the things your toddler can normally predict are no longer predictable, which can lead to overwhelm (and overwhelm = tantrums). So how to address this?
- Pregame, pregame, pregame.
- Tell your child what he or she can expect in advance. Where are you going? How are you getting there? How long will it take? Who will be there? What’s going to happen first? Then what? You don’t need to have every minute of the day mapped out, but the more you can prepare your child for what’s to come, the safer and calmer he will feel.
- Look at pictures of past gatherings, and/or of family members in advance, so that the faces look more familiar.
- Draw pictures of what’s in store, and maybe even make a book together: “The Davis Family’s Thanksgiving Adventure.”
- Plan (or, at least, think about) how you are going to handle issues like snacking, manners, desserts, bedtime, etc. The more thoughtful you can be in advance, the smoother the day will go.
2. A ruptured, or weaker, connection with you. Young children's active connection to their parents or caregivers provides a sense of security deeper than any other. Knowing that they have “their person” in their corner in a given moment can do wonders to prevent or de-escalate tantrums.
At family gatherings, however, this sense of connectedness is often ruptured. Whether you’re stressed by the tasks at hand, worried about being judged for your parenting, or simply excited to catch up with your favorite cousin, your little one can likely sense an increase in your nervous energy, and the fact that he’s not foremost on your mind.
If you’re highly concerned about “seeming” a certain way, especially if that persona differs from how you parent when it’s just your nuclear family, he may feel a bit hung out to dry. So how to handle this one?
- Consciously build in moments of connection.
- Find ways to communicate that you’re there with and for your child (Note: this does not mean that you need make him the center of your universe at all times).
- Set up a code word or secret signal in advance (little kids love this kind of thing): “When I look at you across the room and pull my ear, it means I’m sending you a snuggle.”
- Don’t determine he “needs a break” and take him away from the action in a way that’s stressed at best, and punitive at worst. Rather, build in breaks pre-emptively: Go for a quick walk, or have him come “help” you with something.
- If your child does start to throw a tantrum and you feel your relatives’ disapproving glares, remember that you are on your child’s team. Communicate this verbally or otherwise.
- In order to connect with your child authentically, you need to be grounded and emotionally regulated. Do the “five senses” grounding exercise: Think of five things you can see (say them out loud), four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Focusing on your sensory experiences lands you back in your body, and in a place of emotional regulation that, in turn, allows you to be there for your little one.
Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, PhD, is the author of The Tantrum Survival Guide and the founder of LittleHouse Calls Psychological Services, which specializes in helping kids and parents confronting a range of common early childhood challenges.