Holidays have so much to alert the sense this time of year! Schedule changes and bright, flickering lights; music piping from every store speaker, the bustle of crowds and the congestion of lines; dietary changes (usually in the form of a year’s worth of sugar), calendar overloads, invitations and obligations abound. Some of us are grieving fresh and old losses. Our lives, inside and out, are challenged to keep up. If we as adults can be put in a tailspin, how much more challenged are our children to manage the day to day excitements of a holiday season?
First things first!
The essential part to know is that things go best when we are emotionally regulated. Emotional regulation is the general ability to experience an intense feeling and then manage and respond in healthy ways. For example, if you received criticism at work and you decided to take a break, take a walk, call a close friend, or journal about your feelings privately, those would all be positive ways of emotionally regulating. If on the other hand, you chose to blame, yell, throw things, or smear someone on social media, those would be ways of emotionally dysregulating.
What follows is that we achieve self-regulation best through co-regulation. Humans are made to help other humans. Co regulation refers to our ability in social relationships to adjust ourselves when interacting with each other in order to maintain or return ourselves to a regulated emotional state.
In practice, this would be the example of a child regulating well all through the school day demands only to potentially crumple on the sofa at home in a complete meltdown of crying, yelling and hitting. The child is dysregulated at this point. Because their brains (where the emotional center is) are still developing and learning to interpret the world, they need us, their adults to help them co-regulate and return to their happy place. Co-regulating then, is the emotionally regulated adult coming along side that child to help them move from crying to talking about their feelings; yelling to talking; and hitting to playing with putty or hugging or at least refraining from harming themselves or others.
How does co-regulation happen?
The adult must firstly be in a good emotional space. We grown-ups must be feeling positive and in a frame of mind to respond appropriately. If we have had a tough day ourselves, we must take some time to adjust and get regulated before intersecting our children.
The adult then predicts what will trigger the child and works to mitigate those triggers such as hunger, fatigue, frustration, etc. The caregiver has several options in the moments after school, based on the child’s temperament and preferences: Does he provide a snack on the way home? Does she do something physical such as sledding or play at the park before going to the next commitment? Does he give a long, warm embrace and have a side by side chat? Does she do nothing but give the child time and quiet until they are ready for the next event? In all of these scenarios, the adult is required to firstly be in a good emotional space that allows for thoughtful planning and interactions with the child.
The same is true for the holiday season at large. We as the adults in a variety of children’s’ lives need to take a few moments prior to committing or going to events.Look to see what our history with holidays may be. This is important because we can become dysregulated ourselves, seemingly out of the blue. At that point, we are not available to our children to help them get into a positive emotional space. Fire feeds fire and over the hills and through the woods to a relational catastrophe we go!
Stress and excitement, anticipation and dread, grief and celebration, abundance and lack are two sides of the same coin. When we identify our responses to holiday traditions and events, we can better plan for ourselves and our families. Do we accept an invitation to stay over at a relative’s home? Do we give ourselves permission to not be joyous? Do we love a certain aspect and invite others to join? Do we stick to a budget or spend to oblivion? All of these and many more choices are present because our emotional brain holds our history and in our history, without intentional effort, lays our response.
What tools can you fashion to have an emotionally-well season?
Discover your vision of the holiday season. How do you finish this sentence, “All I want for ____________ is _____________?
- If what you desire is world peace, focus your holiday time on creating a peaceful home and relationships; light candles and create spaces for smooth transitions; pass on large community events.
- Maybe your wishes are for relationships. Create or orchestrate time for people that is comfortable and free of distractions.
- Perhaps an event you love is something big and splashy, full of festivities and raucous laughter. Go knock yourself out!
- Be true to yourself and sensitive to your children and family needs. If you find that something is not helping you or your child be your best self, write yourself a permission slip to bow out, gracefully, even mid-event.
Release control. Children will be underfoot for long periods of time due to school holidays. Work and social schedules will be disrupted. Weather may be unpredictable. It is what it is.
- Plan for an “unstructured space” where play and projects are encouraged and let be. Plan for a duration of time, say a week or two, before being put away.
- Encourage your family unit to list their “wish list” of things they want to accomplish during the holiday season. A sledding trip, an afternoon to read in peace, visiting friends or family, maybe a nap. Post it in a place where everyone can see it. Plan a day or time for each person’s priority.
- If you need to accomplish something for work or home while the children are about, avoid the boredom or too much screen time traps. Have a jar full of “things to do” .These are ideas that children and you have brainstormed on slips of paper ahead of time. When presented with time on their hands, the children can pick a slip and do the activity. You are not choosing it for them, they are making a choice and thus self-directing (and more likely to stay emotionally regulated.).
- Release yourself from thinking that every invitation is an obligation. We are obliged to our responsibilities, not to other’s wishes. When declining an invitation, begin with the positive energy the person brought, “You have worked so hard on this event, I am sure it will be a joy to all who come. I am unable to attend this time and wish you all the best this holiday season.”
Set everyone up for success: regulate and co-regulate as often as you or your child needs to.
- When you are having a rough day, reach out to a trusted adult to decompress (they are co-regulating you with their presence whether online, text, or chat in person). Ask for help early and often.
- Look ahead on schedules and in the day to see potential triggers for you or your child. For example, are loud noises (school programs, shopping, strolling) helpful or harmful?
- Have nutritious foods and water handy in back packs, bags, purses, and vehicles. Stressful social and strenuous activities such as sledding elevate calorie use in the body. Replenishing with good stuff helps the body and brain do its best work. Sometimes snacks need to happen more frequently to keep up with this need.
- Help your child have positive self-regulation days by getting plenty of sleep, water, and growing foods each day. Give them opportunities to succeed by predicting when and where they will dysregulate .Get ahead of the game with your toolbox: play time, quiet time, food time or relational time. Remember, your obligation lies with yourself and your family. Everything else is optional.
- If you must be in a high-stress situation, offer mints or chewing gum to help the child manage anxiety through their mouth. Works for adults too!
Holidays can be a time of great stress or great joy. For those things in your control, make choices that best serve you, your children and family. And for the things out of your control, manage the best you can and help yourself and child co-regulate by predicting and preparing.
For more information on trauma-informed practices and life-worthy topics, visit https://www.gobeyou.org/blog.
For a more in-depth look at emotional regulation and self-harm, Cornell University published this easy-to understand pamphlet https://selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/perch/resources/what-is-emotion-regulationsinfo-brief.pdf.
Heather McCartney-Duty is an Outreach and Consumer Education Specialist with Family Connections Montana. This non-profit serves families by finding and helping them to pay for childcare and serves child care businesses by helping them start-up and become sustainable. This piece draws, with permission, from the work of Stacy G. York, LCSW, co-founder of Go Be Youniversity, featuring resources for trauma-informed teaching and living.