9 Ways to Get Though The Holidays with a Defiant Child


Do you have a picture of  what the holidays should look like? Most of us do  whether we admit it or not.  When the reality doesn’t match the expectation you  have in your head, it feels  awful. Parents of acting-out kids know this  firsthand, because the reality so  often doesn’t match their expectation.

If  you go into the holidays saying “I’m only going to enjoy this time if my child  is compliant and behaves,” you’re setting yourself up for disappointment,  frustration and anger right off the bat.


Where does this picture  of the holidays come from in the first place?  Sometimes it’s from our own  childhood. We think, “This is how it was in my  family, so this is how it should  be.” Or we see others and compare ourselves,  saying, “Everyone else’s family  seems to be doing great. Why does ours seem  like such a mess?” Another picture  that most people have comes from our  culture: This season is supposed to be an  enjoyable, loving family time of  making memories when we get together and  celebrate. It’s everywhere you go. The  advertisements are all  “joy-joy-happy-happy,” and when that isn’t the reality  in your house, you’re  left feeling sad, frustrated and alone.

Added to this, if you  had a rough childhood and the holidays were always  stressful and tense, you  might have told yourself that when you had  kids, things would be  different. As a result, you created a particular picture  of how the holidays  would be, but maybe you’re finding they’re feeling a lot  like they were when  you were a kid. The disappointment and sense of defeat can  be crushing.

Related:  Parenting a defiant child?

The Loneliest Parent on  the Block: When You Have a Defiant  Child

When your child acts out  regularly or is oppositional and defiant and isn’t  behaving (to say the least)  in a very loving manner, it’s hard to think about  making warm memories. But  remember, just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean  that everything is magically  supposed to be perfect and your child will behave;  it doesn’t automatically  turn into a warm, fuzzy time. And if your kid is  calling you names, stealing,  lying, punching  holes in the walls or engaging  in risky behavior, the reality  and the expectation are thrown in sharp  contrast to each other. Where does that  leave you? Feeling even more  isolated.

While finding a way to  parent through the holidays is definitely a process,  here are some things you  can think about this year that will help create  traditions that work for your  family — and space for yourself to find  meaning.

Be kind to yourself. It’s so important to be gentle with  yourself at  this time of year. We have such high expectations for our kids, for  ourselves,  for others and for ourselves. It’s easy to be disappointed. Instead  of beating  yourself up, know that you’re doing the best you can. Acknowledge  that nobody  has a perfect life, no matter how things look on the outside. You  might even  write this down on a notecard and carry it with you, and take it out  when you need  reinforcement.

Related:  How to stay calm and centered no matter how your kids behave.

Don’t compare yourself (or your family) to  others: When you’re comparing your family to others and feeling like  you’re coming up  short, it feels terrible. It’s human nature to do this and it  takes a lot of  work to stop. Understand that it’s really a no-win situation.  When we start  comparing our family to others who seem more “together,” (even  though that  isn’t always the reality) we start to feel anxious. We then try to  force our  kids to behave a certain way so we can live up to the picture we have  in our  heads. The important thing is to start by “accepting the family you  have, not  the one you might wish you had.” Focus on yourself and your family,  and try not  to worry about what other people are doing.

Don’t Blame—Make a Plan: It’s easy to blame  your child for a less-than wonderful holiday. The message is, “If you hadn’t   been behaving this way, things would be fine. You’re ruining Christmas for us.”  This might make your child feel angry and resentful. It could also make her   feel even more powerful—after all, you’ve just told her that your happiness   rests in her ability to behave. Instead of giving her that power, take it back.   Create a plan for the holiday that works for your family, and try to carve out   time and activities that fill you up. It might include going to your house of   worship, calling an old friend to talk when you have a moment, or making a   special dish from your childhood. Whatever it is, find something that makes you   feel good.

Create a Plan of Action for Family  Gatherings: Do  a Holiday Gathering plan ahead of time. When you’re  making your plan, consider  what you have control over. If you think it would be  helpful, you can say to  your kid ahead of time, “These are the expectations and  if that doesn’t  happen then we’re going to leave.” Some kids might hear that  and be okay, and  some kids might decide to act up so you’ll end up leaving your  mom’s house. In  other words, ODD  kids may use that against you. They’d rather leave, so it  turns out to be your consequence of leaving.

Related:  How to parent your oppositional, defiant child effectively.

Sit down and think about what your plan of action will be. You and  your  spouse might say, “If our child is acting up and we have to leave the  holiday  gathering, are we going to feel bitter, resentful and angry about  that?” And if  you are, depending on the situation, you may want to find an  alternative—a  sitter or another relative’s house, for example—that you can  take your child to  if he acts out.Your mindset can be: “How can I  continue with my plan regardless  of how he behaves?”

When you’re judged by  others: Let’s say a  well-meaning (or  not so well-meaning) aunt says, “You really need to get her in  hand. You’re  spoiling her” when your child acts out. A good slogan to have in  your mind when  you’re feeling judged or criticized is, “Thank you for your concern.  We’re  working on it.”

We also recommend that  you practice turning it back to where the blame needs  to be placed—on your  defiant, acting-out, or ODD child. Kim said she used to  take it and blame  herself until she got creative and learned to put the  responsibility and blame  where it needed to be. Look at it this way: if your  child is choosing to act  up, it’s not logical for everyone to look at you; they  should be looking at  her. People think you need to get your child under control  because you’re the parent,  but we suggest saying something like, “Wow, I’m  really sorry that Zoey  embarrassed herself like that. I hope she learns from  her behavior.” Or, “I  know, I couldn’t believe she did  that, either.  That must’ve really been embarrassing for her. At least I hope it was  embarrassing for her!” You’re putting the focus back where it needs to  be and  taking it off yourself. You’re also giving yourself a shell and a spine.  You’re  standing up and saying, “This is my child’s behavior. I did not create  this  behavior. And I’m trying to deal with it just like you are in the  moment.”

One word of caution: You  want to be careful that they don’t do this in the  middle of a holiday gathering  and shame your defiant child. An ODD kid may  become angry or embarrassed by  what you said, and you’re going to get  retaliation that may escalate.

Related:  How to handle it with your ODD child’s behavior escalates.

Create Your Holiday: While everyone around you has  expectations for  how the holiday should go, who says you have to do them  exactly the way your  family did them, or the way everyone else does it? Sit  down and really  think about what will work for your family. Is it more peaceful  to stay home?  Would eliminating some traditions help ease some stress? Maybe  you’ll say,  “This holiday, we’re not going to Grandma’s. We’re going to have  dinner  together here at home and watch a funny movie that we choose  together.”

Doing something smaller  scale might be more reasonable and feel more honest  for your family. It’s all  about what you can live with. Some people decide to  go to family get-togethers  anyway and simply suck it up when their kids act  out. Other parents say, “We’re  not going this year. My sister always criticizes  me and my kids, and then I  hear about it later. This year we’re just going to  have something here at  home.” You might even put your plans down on paper ahead  of time, just to  clarify your thinking on how you want to handle things this  year. There is no  “one right answer.” Bottom line is, you have to make the best  choice for  yourself and your family, and it’s going to be individual.

Don’t Cancel Christmas. Let’s say your child has acted out  or behaved  abominably all year. Maybe your son wrecked the car, or your  daughter broke the  laptop in a fit of rage. Perhaps parenting your pre-teen is  a battle all year  round. Many parents threaten to cancel Christmas, Hanukkah,  birthdays or other  holidays. While we don’t recommend you do that, you can go  forward and handle  things in a way that feels honest and works for your  family.

Instead of punishing  your child because he hurt you, you can use this  opportunity to teach him  better behavior skills. Always think about what  happens in real life. Real life  dictates that if you’ve destroyed someone’s  things, they probably aren’t going  to want to spend a lot of money on you. This  doesn’t have to be done in a  resentful, “Serves you right, this is what you  get” kind of way. Rather, it’s  simply a natural consequence. You can say, “I  love you, you’re my child. This  year, I’m going to put the money that I would  have spent on you this holiday  toward fixing the car that you wrecked.” (You  might decide to get your child a  few small presents he can open on Christmas  morning, but use the rest of the  money for repairs.) This is one way you can  hold him accountable for his  actions. We know this tactic isn’t for everyone,  and you have to decide that  you can live with this decision, too. It’s one way  you can handle the holidays  with a kid who’s been destroying your (or his  siblings, or the neighbors’)  property.

If you decide to do this  and tell your child, you have to stick to it  because you’ve given that  consequence. If you go back on it, you will be  sending a mixed message.

Related:  It’s not “good” vs. “bad” parenting–it’s about effective  parenting.

Find other ways to give: Remember, you can give  in other  ways besides giving expensive gifts. If it’s giving that’s important  to you,  give to people who deserve it. There are so many people in need—not  just for  material things, but even for someone to sit with them and listen to  them. Try  doing something that’s going to make you come away feeling like,  “This was  meaningful for me.” It might even become a tradition that other  family members  participate in, like serving food at a homeless shelter.

Volunteer at Toys for  Tots and help raise money for the kids who aren’t  going to have a Christmas at  all. If your defiant child says, “I’m not doing  that.” You can say, “Well the  rest of the family is. This season is a time of  giving, and that’s what we feel  good about doing, so we’re going to do that.” Maybe they will never  participate, but they’ll know it’s your family value.

Let go of expectations. Finally, let go of expectations for  how things  will go, and of what “should” be. We’ve taken the meaning of the   holidays so far out of context. Go to the nuts and bolts of what they really   are about. Find small ways to celebrate. Maybe for you that’s just some time   where you have a moment to connect to your spirituality. Maybe it’s a best   friend that you call to say, “I’m grateful for you.” If you go into the   holidays saying “I’m only going to enjoy this time if my child is compliant and   behaves,” you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, frustration and anger   right off the bat. You have to anticipate that you can’t control your child’s   behavior choices. You don’t know how your child is going to respond or act, so   ask yourself, “How am I still going to enjoy my holidays? And what kind of a   plan can I formulate so that can happen for me?”


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