Family gatherings often present unique challenges for children navigating new environments and encountering unfamiliar faces. All the newness often causes more meltdowns, and dealing with meltdowns at family gatherings can be overwhelming for parents. 
In this blog post, we’ll cover why meltdowns commonly happen at family gatherings, how to prevent them, and how to respond so you can confidently enter the holiday season.

Shifting Our Perspective: A Relatable Story

Last Christmas, I couldn’t wait for my toddler to meet my aunts, uncles, and cousins for the first time. I imagined how much fun he would have playing with a new group of kids, exploring a new place, opening presents, and eating his favourite foods.

Things went differently than I had envisioned. As soon as we arrived, my toddler appeared agitated. He clung close by, with no interest in playing with the other kids or opening gifts from relatives. He refused to sit down or eat his favourite foods when dinner came around. 

I couldn’t understand why he was so upset. There were new toys, delicious food, and presents – what’s not to love?

After a few hours of repeated meltdowns, I was getting frustrated.

During dinner, I took my toddler to a quiet corner of the dining hall to avoid making a scene. I took long, deep breaths and rocked my toddler in my arms while he cried into my shoulder. 

From where I was standing, I suddenly saw our family gathering with fresh eyes: the room was brightly lit, the space was crowded, and there was a mixture of different smells wafting through the air. 

My entire perspective shifted. My son’s day had been unpredictable and out of routine. He was in a place he had never been before, filled with people he didn’t know. 

I immediately felt so much compassion for my little one. His behaviour made so much sense. He wasn’t trying to give me a hard time. He was having a hard time. 

Understanding Why Meltdowns Happen 

Children don’t melt down for no reason; their behaviour is communication, and it’s our job to translate what it might be saying. To effectively support children during meltdowns, it’s crucial to understand why they could be happening. There are four main reasons children have meltdowns, and these explanations offer some insights for parents during the holiday season. 

Meltdowns are developmentally appropriate for toddlers because their brains aren’t capable of regulating emotions (this takes time and lots of practice), and the chaos and unpredictability of family gatherings can trigger lots of feelings. In a span of one gathering, your toddler might be feeling:

  • Scared of new, unfamiliar faces. 
  • Anxious to locate you in a crowded room. 
  • Frustrated while waiting for dinner to be served.  
  • Angry because you’re talking to someone while they’re trying to get your attention.  

In addition to being an emotionally triggering environment, family gatherings can also be triggering for a child’s nervous system. Family gatherings can feel overstimulating for kids because they’re often filled with bright lights, competing noises, and smells. 

3 Ways to Prevent Meltdowns at Family Gatherings

Preparing kids ahead of time can help kids feel more regulated before and during a family gathering. The more we can do beforehand, the more comfortable our kids will feel at family gatherings. 

Tell the Story of What to Expect

Setting clear expectations can help because your child can predict what’s to come. 

“We’re going to spend Saturday at Grandma’s house. There will be lots of people there, and some people will be new to you!”

Talk with your child about who will be there, what activities might take place, and any potential routine changes. If there will be unfamiliar relatives there, you can show your child pictures and share stories about these family members to help them get acquainted in advance. The key is to make the unfamiliar more familiar. 

“You’ve never met your oldest cousin because she lives far away. She’ll be coming to the family gathering. She has brown eyes, just like you! I can show you pictures of her so you know what she looks like!”

Prioritize Connection

Creating safety in the relationship can set the stage for success during a busy day. Before heading out to a family gathering, create a special signal that you and your child can share to communicate in the chaos. This signal could be a wink or a silly expression your child can give you when they need a break or some extra connection with you. 

“No matter how busy I get today, you can always come to me. If I’m talking to one of your relatives, you can put a hand on my elbow, so I know you need me.”

Letting your child know when they can expect connection time with you can also give them the confidence they need to regulate their emotions during a family gathering. 

“Tomorrow morning, we can make a big pancake breakfast together. I can’t wait to spend some time with you!”

Bring Along Comfort Items 

Creating a safe and familiar environment during the gathering can also provide emotional relief for a child. Bring along your child’s favourite stuffed animal, toy, or blanket to provide them with consistent comfort and security throughout the event. It can also help to pack along sensory objects from home – like fidget toys or squishy items – which can be comforting during moments of distress.

How to Respond to Meltdowns at Family Gatherings 

Connect With the Feeling

If your child has an emotional outburst at a family gathering, it is important to validate their feelings and let them know their emotions are understood and accepted. 

“I hear you! You’re hungry. It can feel so tricky to wait for food when your tummy is grumbling.”

Remember, children can’t be reasoned with when they’re emotional, so it’s important to use your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice to communicate. Open arms, a playful twinkle in your eye, or a gentle tone of voice can be magic for a child. 

When possible, connect with your child before they burst with emotion. This could be as simple as patting them on the back or giving their hand a squeeze at the dinner table. Sprinkling in tiny moments of connection throughout the day can keep your little one calm amidst the chaos. 

Hold Your Boundaries

When a child is overstimulated, hungry, and frustrated, you’re likely going to notice more challenging behaviours like hitting, kicking, screaming, pushing, or throwing food. While we can empathize with a toddler for feeling overwhelmed at a family gathering, it’s key to hold a firm and loving boundary around their behaviour. Responding to meltdowns during a family gathering can sound like:

“It’s okay to be upset that dinner isn’t ready, but I can’t let you hit.”
“I know you’re frustrated that I didn’t put butter on your bun yet, but food isn’t for throwing.” 

Sometimes, holding firm and loving boundaries at a family gathering might look like leaving the dinner table, taking your toddler to a quiet corner, and holding them until they can use their body safely. 

Check-In 

When a child is at a family gathering, they might not feel safe enough to truly express their emotions. Check-in with your child after the gathering to offer them a chance to release any heavy emotions they’ve been carrying all day. This can be as simple as debriefing on the car ride home, or at bedtime by simply asking if anything felt tricky. Anticipate this after family gatherings and make room for tears. 

More Support for Meltdowns 

Supporting toddlers through meltdowns at family gatherings starts by imagining how these situations might appear from a child’s eyes – gatherings are often new, overwhelming, and unpredictable. When we have our child’s perspective in mind, it can help us set the stage for success and nurture the relationship. 

Remember, your child isn’t bad; they are a good child having a hard time! 

For even more tools and strategies for meltdowns, disciplining effectively, and reframing challenging behaviour, check out our online Parenting Little Kids course!

Explore Parenting Little Kids

Key Takeaways

  1. Toddlers may experience meltdowns at family gatherings due to emotional overwhelm and unfamiliarity with the environment.
  2. Clear communication about what to expect and who will be present can help children feel more comfortable and less overstimulated during family events.
  3. Creating connection signals and ensuring regular moments of engagement can provide emotional support and help toddlers regulate their emotions at gatherings.
  4. Introducing familiar objects and sensory items from home can offer comfort and security for children in new and busy settings.
  5. Validating a child’s feelings during emotional outbursts is essential, but it’s also important to maintain firm and loving boundaries around their behaviour.
  6. Checking in with your child after a family gathering allows them to express pent-up emotions and feel heard.
  7. Seeing the situation through a child’s eyes and preparing them accordingly can significantly mitigate meltdowns and create a more positive experience for both the child and parents.

WRITTEN BY

Shannon Wassenaar

Registered Psychotherapist & Mom of 1

Learn More About Shannon

WRITTEN BY

Jess VanderWier

Registered Psychotherapist & Mom of 3

Learn More About Jess
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