Emotional Regulation: Holiday Tips

The holidays are rife with potential opportunities for parents and kids to get over stimulated and temporarily lose the ability to keep their emotions regulated. Routines are non-existent, meal schedules often get disrupted and everyone’s blood sugar goes down. Just think of all the pressure leading up to school letting out: plays and performances, finishing school projects, too many parties, gifts for teachers and gifts for friends; And this is just for the children. Parents have additional pressures: budgeting for gifts, big meals, shopping for everyone, wrapping presents and mailing presents, cards to get out, office parties and office presents, packing everyone up and traveling to relatives, and all that rich food around — and many more I haven’t listed! It takes being proactive to plan for all of this and keep your equilibrium at the same time. It is very important for parents to take care of themselves and be able to stay within their own window of tolerance during this busy time. When you are present and calm, then you can help your child to calm down.  Kids often take their emotional cues from their parents and are very sensitive to the emotional health of their parents. Some therapists say that a child can only be as calm as their parent. Also, there is some new research that shows that when a parent has a very stressful day and has difficulty remaining regulated, the next day the kids have a bad day.

Our kids who have been home less than two years or who were raised in orphanages their first three years, have stress systems much less developed than their typically developing peers. They are very prone to revert to fight, flight or freeze (think oppositional) responses when their window of tolerance has been exceeded. They are going to need extra support to be able to stay regulated during these fun but potentially over stimulating times.  Remember, these kids thrive on routine and structure — this is what helps them feel safe. The holidays  — unique routines, new places and new people — have the potential to be overwhelming and possibly even scary. Here are some tips for keeping them and yourself within your window of tolerance:

Stress Management

To keep your stress level down, try to do as much as possible, as early as possible. Shop for presents and gift-wrap early, plan your meals and shop for food that will keep (frozen turkey) — and stay within your budget! Line up babysitters way in advance and have a contingency plan. Start your cleaning early, or if you can manage it, hire someone to clean!

Try to plan simple celebrations. Simplicity helps keep expectations low. Low expectations reduce stress. Develop a plan that includes taking breaks from stimuli and maintaining routines as much as possible. Include your child in ways for her to stay calm.  If traveling, take familiar things for your child, and remember that too much media screen time can lead to cumulative sensory overload – it is not a good long-term child activity. Especially when you are traveling, be sure to use time ins versus time outs. (Please refer to a previous newsletter for more information on time ins). Imagine yourself as the overwhelmed, scared child. Just when you need help the most, you are sent to a strange room/chair/stair to sit by yourself and think about what you have done. Kids that are overwhelmed or scared cannot think, so this is a lost cause! Keep your child close to you during times when you know your child has had difficult behaviors in the past: meal times, especially the big family holiday dinners, or opening presents (maybe institute a slower process, like one person at a time)

Reducing Body Tension

These techniques work for adults as well as kids. I have taught kids as young as four to do these calming activities.  They are fun to do together. A lot of kids like the muscle tensing and then relaxing technique.  To do this, tighten the muscles of one limb (leg or arm) as tight as the child can do it, hold for a count of three and then relax the muscles and shake it out. Repeat on the other three limbs, the abdomen, neck, and face.

Another technique is breathing. Be sure to use your abdomen and not your chest when expanding your diaphragm to fill your lungs. Get in a comfortable position that allows you and your child to have their feet flat on the floor; Most kids need to lie on their backs to accomplish this.  Ask your child to breathe with you. Take air in your nose and out your mouth. Breathe in to the count of four, making a big balloon out of your tummy, hold for three, and exhale through your mouth to the count of four. When you exhale, hold your hand in front of your face with your fingers spread wide. Pretend they are birthday candles you are blowing out as you exhale.  Do this cycle three times. It interrupts the stress cycle.

Preparing for sleep

 Doctors call this sleep hygiene. Any type of media screen activity is very stimulating to the brain, even though the body is quiet. It is recommended to stop all media screen activity an hour before trying to put your child down for the night. This includes watching TV. Do quiet activities, like telling stories, reading or writing in a journal about the day, or a warm bath. If you are leaving on a trip the next morning, don’t make that the main topic of conversation. Be sure to have a relaxing evening, be low key on Santa coming rather than obsessing about it, read books that are not about Santa and toys and all the exciting stuff.


When traveling, don’t rely solely on DVD players. Have other entertainment opportunities for your kids and at least 30 minutes before arriving at your destination, be sure that all screen activity has ended. You may want to think about how long that movie is; Will the kids be able to finish it? When you arrive, before piling out and running up to the house, have everybody do some calm breathing to help with this transition. Part of the stress of holidays is all the transitions that happen, and this is a reflection of changed routines and all the additional people your child comes in contact with.

Talk to your child about a plan while visiting. Talk to them about getting too excited and maybe doing something that they will regret. Tell them that whenever they feel like they are getting too excited, they can come find you and stay by you until they feel calm again. Another way to help your child calm down and stay within their window of tolerance is for you to go in about 8 minutes after they have started playing to check on how things are going. If your child looks relaxed, then check in every 15 minutes. After an hour, tell them you want them to step outside with you for a few minutes, and walk down the driveway and back. Then your child can resume playing.  If you see or hear some signs that s/he may be getting too excited, go over to her/him and whisper in her/his ear, “What’s going on?” Again, have your child leave the room for a little walk, and then return and problem solve the situation.

Remember the concept of time in:  “Honey, come sit with me a while, and when you are feeling calmer you can go back and play.”

Dinner’s ready!

This is a big transition in a situation that is often very stressful; Lots of smells, lots of people, lots of talking, lots of banging and clatter.  All that, and most everyone has low blood sugar! Here is how to help your child have a successful transition to the dinner table and meal:  About 20 minutes before dinner is ready, get your child out of the house and go for a walk. Your child may not like having to stop playtime early, but that’s ok. Respect that s/he doesn’t want to stop and verbally acknowledge that it is hard, but also remind her/him that she will get another chance to play. You are providing regulation for your child. Remind her that this will help her to be able to participate in the rest of the activities that are going to happen.   Ahead of time, arrange to have your child sit next to you at dinner. Your presence has a calming effect on your child, and you can keep an eye out for things that she will need help with, like serving herself, portion size and cutting, reaching over things and spilling …


When you are staying at friends or relatives for the holidays, be sure to practice the “sleep hygiene” discussed earlier. Also include a review of the day before bedtime; This can include favorite things and disappointments. Your child may be better able to let go of the excitement if you put it down in writing. Be mindful of who your child may be sharing a bedroom with.  Is it someone that she doesn’t get along with?  Maybe they are best buddies that can’t stop talking? Be proactive and make alternative sleeping arrangements just in case it is needed. No one is successful at staying within their window of tolerance if they are sleep deprived.

Remember to lower your expectations, try to keep to your routine, and be prepared to provide your child with extra support so everyone can enjoy each other.

Happy Holidays!

Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member

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