Children and challenging behavior: When your child sabotages Christmas

By Jane Mose, MA, CFS Family Peer Specialist

Some parents actually dread the Christmas season because their child’s behavior is so challenging that it drains all the joy.

This may sound odd to all the parents who find great joy in watching their children engage in the excitement of Christmas. But it’s real. Some children are unable to regulate their behavior leading up to or during a special day, resulting in any number of angry verbal and physical outbursts or extra meltdowns. They might defy and reject their parents more around a holiday.

Children from all backgrounds, including being raised in very loving homes, can sometimes have difficulties with holidays. If you are a foster or adoptive parent, you likely have experienced this sabotaging behavior. It’s quite common among this population. So know that you are not alone. For all parents, this is your opportunity to develop understanding and compassion. This article helps explain some of the reasons behind the behavior.

Reasons for sabotaging behavior

  • The child does not feel comfortable with change. Children often need predictability and routines in order to feel safe. A holiday celebration can be very different from the normal routine, triggering fears and dysregulation in the child.
  • The child’s senses are overwhelmed. Many children have difficulty with sensory processing. This means that they can easily become overwhelmed by too much noise, too many new things to look at, and even new smells, tastes, and textures. Christmas celebrations tend to have all of these things!
  • The child’s sensory issues lead to accidents. Another sense that is often challenging for children is the proprioceptive This is the sense that we use to determine how much pressure to apply, for example, when using a pencil or closing a door. A child who has difficulty with the proprioceptive sense may often break pencils or slam doors unintentionally. That same child might accidentally break gifts or decorations. An additional sense that can be a challenge is the vestibular sense, which controls balance. A child with sensory issues in this area may accidentally bump or fall into things or drop them.
  • The child still feels loyalty to past caregivers. Foster and adopted children can feel such deep loyalty to their birth parents (yes, even abusive ones) or to past foster parents or other caregivers that they resist attachment to their new parents. One way to resist attachment is to reject the parents’ gifts and their loving attempts to share their joy with the children.
  • The child does not yet trust parents. Children who learned in their earliest years—for any reason—that they could not trust others may be suspicious of their parents’ motivation in giving them gifts. They may feel that parents aren’t being honest with them and will take them away later. They may also feel that gifts to siblings show that their parents prefer the siblings, so they try to sabotage the siblings’ surprises.
  • The child has not yet learned holiday social skills. A whole new set of social skills are needed around holidays. For Christmas, these skills include thanking gift-givers graciously (even if you don’t like the gift!), taking turns with gift-opening, letting other children try out their own new toys first, waiting for food to be passed at the dinner table, saying “no, thank you” politely when offered certain foods, helping with clean-up, and much more. It is not realistic to expect a child who hasn’t learned these skills in the past to display them well during the holidays.
  • The child does not feel worthy of receiving or enjoying nice things. Children with poor self-concepts and those from hard places may feel shame around their past histories. This can cause conflicts within them that they do not yet have the maturity to handle: “I really want to enjoy this, but I have no right to it!”
  • The child does not feel comfortable in this environment. Sometimes children prefer the familiar, even if it doesn’t seem preferable to us, because it makes them feel more comfortable and less scared. For example, a child who never received gifts for past Christmases may be uncomfortable receiving them now. A child whose home was filled with sadness or anger around the holidays may be uncomfortable in the environment of a happy, joyful celebration.
  • The child’s emotional age is much lower than their chronological age. Children who have experienced developmental trauma often function at half their chronological age or less because of trauma’s effects on the brain.1 They might, therefore, act like much younger children would in that situation.
  • The child has not yet developed causeand-effect thinking. Children from hard places often have learned to act on instinct in order to survive. They have not yet learned to logically think ahead to the fact that if they break their gifts, their gifts will stay broken!

Understanding the reasons behind your child’s sabotage of Christmas or other holidays can help you determine your next steps in changing that behavior. In Part Two of this series, we will look at strategies for reducing your child’s difficult behaviors around the holidays.

In the meantime, if you are dreading Christmas this year, concerned that you will be drained of all joy, remember the Source of all joy and peace. Jesus understands your pain because he walked this earth. He saw all the sideways glances, heard all the judging comments, dealt with frustrating behavior. He is with you and has compassion. The Apostle Paul reminds us to pray about this and all things:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, EHV)

Wishing you God’s blessings as you take your stress to him in prayer and lean on his promise to answer.

This was part one of a two-part series, click here to read part two: Children and challenging behavior: Ten strategies to prevent and address holiday challenges

Jane Mose, MA, is an adoptive mom and former special education teacher who appreciates the opportunity to support other parents and encourage them throughout their parenting journey. She is trained as a Certified Parent Peer Specialist through the State of Wisconsin and as a Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) Practitioner through the Karen Purvis Institute of Child Development.

1https://www.casatravis.org/helping_children_heal_from_trauma_the_lessons_of_dr_karyn_purvis




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