TORONTO - With the arrival of the holiday season comes the inevitable spike in shopping excursions and social gatherings — and with them, potential opportunities for children to act out.
Navigating through crowded aisles and packed parking lots can be stressful enough. But contending with a youngster having a meltdown in the mall is enough to fray the nerves of even the most mild-mannered parent.
"Tantrums are about power struggles and attention," said Natalia McPhedran, an Ottawa-based children's coach and author of "Life With Kids — Empowering Our Children To Be Ready For The Real World," due out in December.
"If we use techniques at home that avoid the power struggles at home, I think that you're halfway there by the time you get to the mall because they know: 'OK, Mom means business.'"
McPhedran — a mother of two — outlines expectations prior to a shopping trip. That includes specifying the purpose of the visit to ensure youngsters don't get sidetracked.
"For example: 'Today, we're just going to get this and this and this. Don't even ask me for chocolates, don't ask me for candy, don't ask me for toys. You can look, but you can't touch, because today we're not buying that,'" said McPhedran. "If you're consistent with following through with other things at home, they know that you mean business when you say something.
"You've already given them that pre-set expectation at home. When they get to the mall, they know that you're also going to follow through there."
Once kids know the expectations, McPhedran said it's still good to have rules making kids aware of what they can do.
"Once when you get there, let's say: 'Let's go in the toy aisle and let's go and look at all the cool stuff they have. Tell me what you like and we'll see what Santa can do,'" she said. "I remember we used to walk through the toy section of Zellers when I was little and we never walked out with stuff every time we went."
In the event a tearful tantrum still ensues, McPhedran said the source of unhappiness is usually due to one of three things: hunger, fatigue or a desire to be heard. Rather than reacting in anger to the outburst, she suggested an alternative approach.
"You have to keep your calm as well. Because if you freak out also, then that just gives them even more attention and more people look," said McPhedran, mother to an 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son. "Come down to their level, calmly say: 'We are not having this right now.'"
McPhedran said adults should recognize their child's feelings, such as those of anger at parents for not purchasing a particular item. But they should then remind kids of initial pre-warning that buying goods for them wasn't a part of the day's agenda.
Similarly, when it comes to attending a party or family gathering, establishing and articulating ground rules beforehand is pivotal.
"If they know what to expect and they know what you expect of them, then the behaviour should just follow," said McPhedran. "Before I leave the house, I would say: 'Listen, make your aunts and uncles proud. Show them that you know how to behave when you go to (an event) like this. And make yourself proud and feel good about yourself.'
"When I was growing up, every time we would have a huge family gathering and (guests) would leave, I would always love how my mom would come up to me after and say: 'You were very impressive tonight by the way you said good night to every person, or the way that you set the table or cleared the table.' That always made me feel really good," she added.
Having kids taking on chores and being designated special responsibilities during the festive season — like helping bake cookies or decorating the tree — is also key.
"Even if they put five ornaments on one branch and the ornaments are dangling down to the ground, I say: 'Oh, wow, great job' because they're only so high and they can't go up to a certain level," McPhedran said with a laugh. "The next day, I'll just move them and spread them out. But I'm not going to take them away from decorating the way that they want because that just makes them feel included.
"Christmas is a great way to get them involved —decorating, cleaning, vacuuming. If you're going to have a big dinner, say: 'This is going to be your job.' How awesome do kids feel when you give them a task, like just making the nametags for the place settings?"