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Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Toddler Meltdown, the Ever-Popular Thanksgiving Side Dish

Got a toddler or preschooler? Planning to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow? Be prepared for your little person to lack all aplomb as he or she encounters the feast that even grown-ups often dread.

The best you can hope for is that your child copes pretty well, cries only a little bit, eats a bite or two from the carefully-prepared menu, and delays tantrums until late in the day. Like some other major holidays, Thanksgiving contains many of the elements most disturbing to young children, and its family focus ensures that there will be plenty of adults and older kids who try awkwardly to cheer the little guys up, or scold them for their crankiness. This combination easily produces tears, resistance, clinginess, the biting of cousins, loud statements that the stuffing is yucky, and everything else that exhausts and humiliates parents.

What is it, anyway, that makes toddlers and holidays like Thanksgiving such a lethal mixture? Here’s a list of reasons:

1. Toddlers are creatures of habit. They eat when it’s the time they usually eat. If it’s too early or too late to eat, they don’t want to eat-- and of course we usually have the Thanksgiving meal later than lunch time and earlier than supper time, so what do we expect?

2. More habit, plus neophobia: Toddlers eat what they’re used to eating. They don’t eat new things until they’ve become familiar with them by seeing them a number of times. Even if their own family eats green beans and turkey, toddlers will instantly detect that what someone else cooked is not the right kind; it doesn’t look exactly the same and it doesn’t taste exactly the same, so the fact that it’s a green bean cuts no ice with the two-year-old. Even a turkey cooked at the toddler’s own house may not be acceptable, because Mom and Dad have done their best to make it interesting and appetizing for older people, i.e., different from what the child is used to. This problem, plus the timing of the meal, may mean that the child is hungry but can’t manage to eat.

3. Toddlers don’t manage well when they’re tired, and a holiday like Thanksgiving usually makes them tired. They may have been up late the night before while Mom and Dad were rushing around trying to get organized. In the morning, they may have had a long drive (in the course of which they fell asleep, messing up their usual sleep schedule), or there may have been a lot of commotion at their own house as someone tried to put a turkey in the oven while keeping the child from touching the hot oven door. Either at home or elsewhere, nap time was probably disrupted.

4. There are too many people to cope with. Toddlers are disorganized by large groups of large people, many of whom may be talking and laughing loudly, or alternatively starting to yell at each other. Just imagine yourself in a roomful of rambunctious 12-foot-tall people, if you want to see what the toddler experience may be like.

5. Ordinarily, toddlers depend on contact with familiar caregivers to get them through difficult situations. They make eye contact, or call out, or hold onto a parental leg until they calm down. But holidays like Thanksgiving make this difficult. There may be too much of a crowd for ordinary contact to be easy to make, and what’s more parents are likely to be distracted with cooking or with the demands of other adults for attention.

6. Toddlers pick up their parents’ feelings and are distressed when the parents are distressed. (This doesn’t mean that the child will behave differently in order to keep from upsetting a parent, though!) Parents often have reason to be anxious about family-focused holidays, and they are especially vulnerable to criticism or disapproval of their children’s behavior. This produces a vicious circle in which the fussy child draws criticism that disturbs the parent, who then becomes increasingly distressed, disturbing the child and becoming less capable of handling the disturbance. Scolding or spanking do no good at all when everyone is already in a tailspin.

All of these problems together pretty well insure that toddlers are going to behave less well on a day like Thanksgiving than they usually do. Unfortunately, most of these items are part and parcel of the holiday. It might be possible to get the dinner scheduled at something closer to toddler mealtimes, or to bring familiar food from home, and those changes might help a bit. But you won’t be able to change most of what happens.

Nothing is going to change a toddler into an adult for the day, but adults may be able to plan ahead and make sure that they themselves are as adult-like as possible. It would be an especially good idea for parents of toddlers to remind themselves that the child does not exist to make them, the parents, look good. Indirect criticism of the parents, by way of disapproval of the child, is uncomfortable to feel, but can be ignored, for the day at least.

Yes, this too shall pass. Just remind yourself that 20 years from now that toddler is going to ask why you can’t make the stuffing the way Grandma or Aunt Carol always did, completely forgetting how he used to shriek when coaxed to eat it!


  1. Sort of off topic, but have you seen this blog?

    I'd like your opinion on what's depicted in it.

  2. Hmmm. I see what you mean--- thanks for the suggestion. I want to read more of it, then I'll comment.


  3. Jean, this is a great post! It happens in other situations as well, situations such as grocery or wallpaper shopping. Unrealistic expectations of little kids are often the cause of meltdowns and less than perfect behavior.

    To add a bit of advice to what you've already supplied, something I found that worked amazingly well for me was to actually discuss what the child was going to be up against...with the child!

    Tell them what it will be like. Boring, long, food they may not like, etc and let them know how you'd like them to deal with it all, AHEAD OF TIME.

    That they don't have to hug people the don't want to (I hope).

    They won't have to eat a bit of everything that's offered.

    There will be things at the store they'll want to buy but it won't be happening so there's no point in asking.

    That wallpaper shopping will be long and boring but the faster it gets done the better. Ask the child for their help in getting the job done, tell them you'll make it up to them by doing some activity they enjoy. Better yet, if possible, don't make them go shopping if they don't like it!

  4. Very good points, Campbell-- and I'd definitely add, don't decide to make a "quick stop" at a store on the way home, after you've spent the morning waiting in the pediatrician's office.

    Not having to hug people at parties is an excellent rule to establish, though relations may complain that you're spoiling the child.however, that's their (the relations') problem, isn't it?

  5. Oh exactly. I had no problem telling any relative who was ridiculous enough to make a fuss that in our family we don't make anyone hug other people if they don't feel like it.

    I never once insisted on the obligatory hugs. I have (on the sly) asked my son to give someone a hug as a favor to me but no way would it have been in the fashion of an "order" or anything he couldn't refuse to do if he just didn't want to.

    He's grown up to be one of the best "huggers" in the family and we just talked about why his hugs are so good and I believe it's because they're genuine, given for a reason, not just out of a sense of duty.