Friday, December 7, 2012

Coping with Holiday Temper Tantrums

Coping with Holiday Temper Tantrums

The holidays can be a fantastic, joy-filled time; however they also can sometimes lead to stress. This can be true whether you are a parent or not, but parents sometimes have their own unique sources of stress. The American Psychological Association has offered some Tips for Parents on Managing Holiday Stress 

"APA offers these tips to help parents deal with holiday stress:

Set expectations – Talk to your kids about expectations for gifts and holiday activities. Be open with them if money is an issue. Depending on a child's age, parents can use this as an opportunity to teach their kids about the value of money and responsible spending. And be realistic. Take small concrete steps to deal with holiday tasks instead of overwhelming yourself with goals that are too far reaching for a busy time.Keep things in perspective – Try to consider stressful situations in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing events out of proportion and teach your kids how to keep things in perspective, including what type and the number of gifts they receive.

Make connections – Good relationships with family and friends are important. So, view the holidays as a time to reconnect with people. Additionally, accepting help and support from those who care about you can help alleviate stress. Even volunteering at a local charity with your kids is a good way to connect with others, assist someone in need and teach your kids about the value of helping others.

Take care of yourself – Pay attention to your own needs and feelings during the holiday season. Engage in activities that you and your family enjoy and find relaxing. Taking care of yourself helps keep your mind and body healthy and primed to deal with stressful situations. Consider cutting back television viewing for kids and instead, get the family out together for a winter walk. It promotes activity and takes kids away from sedentary time and possible influence from advertisements."

Sometimes parents have additional sources of stress, including children who may act up. It is fair to speculate that most kids have had a temper tantrum at some point in their lives (and so have you).  However, temper tantrums have been in the news a lot this year. You may have heard that daily temper tantrums are not normal for preschoolers based on a recent study (see last Month's APA Monitor for an article on this.) "While 84 percent of parents reported their children occasionally had tantrums, only 9 percent reported daily outbursts." However, when the extra stress of the holidays come around parents may worry about what their family thinks if their child acts up. They may feel stress or worry that they'll be embarrassed if their child has behavioral issues during the family meal or other holiday activities. They may also have reservations about taking their child to the store during all of the holiday sales and promotions; particularly if their child may tend to have meltdowns if they don't get what they're asking for. It's good to remember the tips about managing your own expectations as well as those of your child.

When it comes to issues like temper tantrums the tips from APA are a good starting point. It is important to not just manage your own expectations, but the expectations of your child (or children). Being clear from the beginning about your expectations for them and taking steps to prevent problems whenever possible is key. Preventing temper tantrums and related difficulties is always easier than trying to deal with them "in-the-heat-of-the-moment." That's why another good tip would be to know your child's "buttons" and manage any triggers or other issues which may tend to lead to these behaviors. For example, if they tend to get crabby when they're hungry or tired it makes sense to stay within their reasonable limits and manage your expectations for them. In that instance you may not want to push it too far past lunch time without a healthy snack during the holidays. Some children do well with their usual routines but the holidays can be a time where routines go out the window and lots of unfamiliar faces may turn up. Try to stick to routines when possible and prepare your child when it's not possible.

However, another recent source of news about "temper tantrums" is the recent announcement by the American Psychiatric Association that they will definitely include a new diagnosis in the next edition of their diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals called the DSM-5. The new diagnosis is called Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, it is a mood disorder that originates in childhood that was introduced with the hope of reducing the number of children who currently receive pediatric bipolar disorder diagnoses.  The diagnosis is for kids who don't have classic manic episodes and who tend to be irritable with frequent temper outbursts. You can read a little more about Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder at the Balanced Mind Foundation's blog (they were formerly called the child and adolescent bipolar foundation).

Some critics have argued that diagnosing kids like this takes the "blame" off of parents when parents deserve the blame. On the other hand, some really great parents sometimes feel that the suggestions that they receive from professionals are implying that it is there fault that their child is showing a developmentally inappropriate level of difficulty with regulating their emotions and solving problems in their daily life. They receive lots of suggestions. There are lots of parenting suggestions for managing kids when temper tantrums start to get out of hand. One book that I like for parents is Ross Greene's "The Explosive Child." In addition to the concepts from Dr. Greene's book, an evidence-based approach that psychologists can also use is called Parent Management Training. While medication is an additional option to consider,  approaches from a psychologist or counselor often rely on the parent's help. This is in-part because a psychologist can only be with the child 45-50 minutes per week (and often less than that). In addition, interventions that work at the "point-of-performance" for the child often have the most success. So if your child is having their temper tantrums at home, at school or somewhere in the community, usually being able to intervene directly  in those settings will be most helpful. Parents and teachers are generally with the child during those times and psychologists will help by being a consultant to try new approaches for preventing temper outbursts and other difficulties from occurring and helping your child learn new skills "at the point-of-performance."  While some embarrassment with family members should be expected and some behavioral concerns occur in most kids now and then, when temper outbursts become frequent and severe it may be time to talk to a psychologist. You can find psychologists in your area by using the American Psychological Association's Psychologist Locator  and the Ohio Psychological Association's Psychologist Referral Program

Todd Finnerty, Psy.D. is a psychologist in Columbus, OH. You can also follow Dr. Finnerty on Twitter.