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Helping Young Children Cope With Difficult Emotions During The Holidays

Updated: Nov 29, 2018

By Dr. Harleen Hutchinson,

Executive Director of The Journey Institute, Inc.

The holiday is an exciting time of the year when families are all dealing with a multitude of stressful events that often impacts young children’s ability to cope when these stressors arise. Many families are first time parent or established parents with young children. This is one of the most exciting time in the life of a father or mother. However, they are often faced with an overwhelming wide range of emotions welcoming the birth of their new born or learning how to cope with the emotional challenges of their young child(ren).

A Young child’s reaction to a stressful situation varies with their developmental stage, and the level of support that they receive from a caring caregiver.

It is during these stressful times that many parents or caregivers struggle to understand the various meaning of their children’s emotions, whether verbal or non-verbal. We know that babies are blossoming at a fast pace and that their brains are under rapid development as they use their senses to absorb things in their environment. For babies, this is exciting, as they coo, babble, kick their leg, cry and make screeching sounds to communicate their needs. Often times as parents, we are not attuned to the signals that they are giving us and may struggle to read their cues. Children's reactions to stressful situations vary with their developmental stage, and the level of support that they receive from a caring caregiver. Young children function within the context of caregiving relationships. Therefore, when parents are stressed, young children can often absorb their parent's emotional state, as they tend to mirror their parents’ behavior.

When a parent is stressed, young children often interpret their parent's behaviors as an appropriate way of coping with their own stressful emotions. Therefore, it is during these difficult times that parents need to provide their children with an increased level of support to help children regulate their emotions. This becomes challenging because holiday experiences can be very overwhelming and unpredictable for both children and parents. As such, parents are encouraged to be alert and attuned to their children’s emotions during the holidays to provide them with a consistent level of support as they negotiate the challenges of regulating their complex emotions,

Signs of Stressors in young Children:

It is important to recognize stress in young children to provide them with a nurturing and safe environment to cope. When the stressors in a young child’s life becomes too overwhelming, it increases the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to many health problems for the child due to the toxic level of stress hormone in their bodies. Therefore, changes in a young child’s normal behavior provides us with clues into the internal state of the child’s emotion. Some young children may display the following behaviors when the stressors within their environment becomes too overwhelming:

Here are five tips for helping young children cope with stress:

Being With

Being in the moment and presence allows young children to learn life long skill of emotion regulation as you continue to provide scaffold and support. When young children learn how to be in the presence while they are dealing with a wide range of emotions, they are learning how to understand emotions more fully. Parents presence acknowledges those feelings and helps the child to self-regulate those emotions better.


When young children learn how to identify and recognize their emotions, they become better at labeling their feelings. In labeling their feelings, they are better able to communicate their feelings. When parents provide support to the child, the child is learning how to recognize their different emotional state. One way a parent can help a child for example is by saying, “ I see that you are having a hard time leaving grandma’s house and it is making you angry, is that what you are feeling?”.

Maintain a Routine

Young children function well when their environment is structured, predictable, and nurturing. This helps them to feel safe and secure in themselves and their environment. Therefore, a consistent level of routine helps to decrease the frequency of stressors taking place within a child’s environment.

Maintain a Good Sleep Routine

Even though the holiday is an exciting time of the year for young children, sleep routine is extremely important in their functioning. When young children do not receive adequate sleep, they will become irritable and fussy, leading to behavioral challenges. So, while they are enjoying the holiday festivities, ensure that sleep is part of their everyday routine plan.

  • Disturbance in sleep and eating

  • Severe tantrums

  • Regression in skills already learned, such as potty training

  • Nightmares

  • Excessive crying behaviors

  • Difficulty consoling or comforting

  • Aggressive Behaviors ie. Hitting, biting

  • Clingy behavior

Being Mindful of Your Own Stressors

On a whole, the holiday season is a stressful time of the year, and as parents we tend to absorb a lot of emotions surrounding the holiday and involvement with various family members. So, it is extremely important that we pay attention to our own bodies and how it reacts to unpleasant emotions. Young children often function within the context of caregiving relationship. Therefore, if a parent is having a difficult time coping with a stressful emotion, the young child tends to absorb that particular emotions, unless the parent is able to recognize and label their emotions to help the child understand how adults deal with emotions. So, consider being mindful about the feelings that emerge and follow up with self-care activities to de-escalate those negative emotions.

Self Care

As you celebrate the holidays with family and friends, remember that in helping young children cope that you also need to take care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup, so do some self-care activities for yourself, such as listening to calming music, taking a walk, relaxing on the porch, getting a massage, or reading a book.


Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief).Retrieved November, 2018 from

Gunnar, M. R., & Quevedo, K. (2007). The neurobioloby of stress and development. Annual Review ofPsychology, 58, 145-173.

Lieberman, A.F., & Van Horn, P. (2008). Psychotherapy with infants and young children: Repairing the effects of stress and trauma on early attachment. New York: Guilford Press

About Dr. Hutchinson

Dr. Harleen Hutchinson is an Infant Mental Health Specialist and Executive Director of The Journey Institute, Inc and a psychologist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She is the Chair of the Florida Association of Infant Mental Health, Broward Chapter and works at The Journey Institute, Inc., a not-for-profit organization, as an Executive Director, developing programs and treating young children birth to five. She writes for her local parenting family resource guide and is a local and state trainer on issues pertaining to young children birth to five.

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