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The holidays can create a time of wonder, magic, and joy for children and families alike. The unpredictability in schedules, however, can create stress for little ones and result in challenging behaviors.

Kathy Kidd, associate director of the UT Early Learning Center for Research and Practice, offers these suggestions for helping children learn to be thankful and cheerful in the midst of the holiday rush.

  • Be a role model: Young children look to the people around them to understand what’s expected of them.

“Their most important role models are people they spend time with, especially their parents and caregivers,” Kidd said. “If you would like to see thankfulness and graciousness in your child, the first thing you have to do is live thankfully and graciously yourself.”

  • Limit lists: Parents and caregivers often encourage children to make a list of all gifts they want—and then purchase everything on that list.

When that happens, children can start to associate the holidays with “it’s all about me getting everything I want,” Kidd said. “We’re programming them all along to expect that.”

  • Give open-ended gifts: The shelf life of the most highly marketed toys tends to be limited.

“We’ve all had that experience of seeing children interacting with the boxes and paper rather than the gift,” she said. “In addition to specific toys like dolls, we suggest parents include open-ended materials such as blocks and large fabric pieces that push the child to think creatively and expand play time.”

  • Nurture openness: When children open a gift they may not want and react negatively, engage them in conversation about their reaction rather than scold them, Kidd said.

“The thing about children is there’s a lot of honesty there,” she said. “If we’re going to be insulted by their honesty when they open something, that’s because of our social cues we’ve acquired. We need to always understand they need the opportunity to learn what the appropriate response is, not just be punished or belittled. You might say to them, ‘Sometimes you get something you weren’t expecting, but there’s always something exciting you can do with it.'”

  • Manage your own expectations: “We as caregivers all can be guilty of putting higher expectations on our own children,” Kidd said. “We want to take our own knowledge and assume that our child got that from birth.”

Take a big breath and give children a chance to be children, she said. “Don’t be angry with them for something they don’t know. Be patient with them and help them learn.”

  • Normalize routines: Provide consistency and predictability for children during the hectic holiday season. Too much activity leads to exhaustion, which sparks meltdowns and other challenging behaviors. Build play and rest time into busy schedules. Manage your stress or children will take signals from you and become stressed, Kidd said.

“Clearly communicating to children what we’re doing that’s different during the holidays is also helpful,” Kidd said. “We bypass that children need that, but it’s a sign of respect for the child to communicate with him or her.”

The Early Learning Center is a laboratory school affiliated with the Department of Child and Family Studies within the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. It provides full-day early education programs for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners. The center’s mission is to generate knowledge and practices that improve the field of early education.

To learn more about the center, visit the website.


Lola Alapo (865-974-3993,

Kathy Kidd (865-946-4093,