Candy-fueled tantrums and choruses of “I want!” are all too common this time of year. Here’s how to teach your kids to follow their own best instincts.

By Sunny Sea Gold
Updated December 11, 2017
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Anyone who takes care of little people during the month of December knows that, even with an Elf on the Shelf watching, the holidays can bring out whining, tantrums, and spoiled behavior in kids. Try these simple ideas to help your little one feel calmer and act sweeter this year.

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A child’s bratty behavior can often be a reaction the mood of the adults in the house. “Between parties, and presents, and family events, parents are naturally more stressed over the holidays,” says child behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun, author of You're Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your 4- to 12-Year-Old Child. As the tension level in the house rises, kids get whinier and more needy. So slim down your schedule and fill more of your holiday with low-key experiences, suggests Braun. A quiet tree-trimming at home can be just as joyful as joining the crowds for the big event downtown.


Of course your kids are going to stay up later than they normally do when school’s out, but “missing out on sleep sabotages a child’s ability to be his best self,” says Braun. You don’t have to be completely inflexible, but aim to get the kids to bed on time five out of seven days a week throughout the season.


Yes, the kids are going to eat things to this season they don’t usually consumer in such massive quantities. Candy canes! Chanukah gelt! Advent calendars stuffed with chocolate! It’s part of the fun. But you can help keep their blood sugar and moods balanced with nibbles that are packed with protein and/or fiber such as string cheese, yogurt, trail mix, or low-sugar snack bars.


Nothing feels more disappointing to a parent during the holidays than a kid acting ungrateful and entitled after opening their gifts. “It’s very hard to inspire gratitude in children who always have. Yearning is a big part of feeling grateful,” says Braun. Just think back to a time when you saw something you really wanted, but you couldn’t have it, or you had to wait a long time to get it. Didn’t the wait make it so much sweeter? Instead of giving a pile of presents that will get tossed aside the day after Christmas, pare it down to one or two items your child truly wants. Don’t be afraid to ask family to slim down their gift lists, too. “Your children don’t need a bunch of presents from you, and from Santa, and grandma and grandpa and all the aunts and uncles!,” says Braun, who suggests family members chip in one one big thing together—preferably an experience, like a trip to an amusement park, or tickets to a show.


Some of us worry that our kids are going to become spoiled by the gifts and special outings over the holidays. The best way to guard against that is to encourage a sense of gratefulness all year round, says Braun. First, model the behavior by saying please and thank you often. Then institute a simple daily tradition of going around the dinner table to talk about one good thing that happened that day that you’re thankful for. Another idea: Pick a “gratitude” corner—a place on the refrigerator or a cork board in the entryway—where you and the kids can leave notes or pictures saying what you’re happy about. “There’s a tremendous amount of research about how we create mindful gratitude,” says Braun. “It doesn’t come from forcing a kid to say thank you; it comes from living in a milieu of gratitude every day.”