Skip the Frustration by Setting Realistic Holiday Expectations

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Sometimes the holiday season feels like a full-time job. It seems to start just a little bit earlier each year. And the opportunities to wear kids out with the excitement of the season are endless. While the holiday season can be tons of fun for kids of all ages, it can also be completely exhausting.

Little kids (toddlers in particular) tend to show their frustration through tears, tantrums, and whining. They don’t walk up to parents and say, “I’m really tired, can we please go home?” No. Toddlers tend to erupt in giant tantrums, wherever and whenever, when they hit the point of no return. To that end, it helps to establish realistic holiday expectations for toddlers, healthy and age-appropriate, to help get them through the holiday season.

The best way to avoid tantrums is to meet the needs of the toddlers, and that begins with establishing realistic expectations.


Holiday travel can be difficult. I travel with my kids for the holidays every year, and while it does get a little bit easier with each passing year, we still have to deal with long lines, impatient travelers, flight delays, and germs galore. It’s not pretty.

  • Pack more snacks than toys. We are conditioned to think that our kids need entertainment, but toddlers are often entertained by the mundane. What they need are snacks.
  • Bring all of the wipes and clean your space. Trust me.
  • Stickers and a small notebook = lots of fun.
  • Prepare for long lines and delays. Keep your cool and play 7 billion rounds of “I Spy.” One day you’ll miss it.
  • Download your favorite Netflix shows and stop worrying about the screen time. You’ll step away from the screens tomorrow.
  • Kids cry on flights. It’s okay. Soothe your toddler any which way you can and don’t pay any attention to the looks coming from other passengers.
  • Traveling is hard. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and upset.

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Parties are fun for adults but tend to be overwhelming for toddlers. Loud, bright, and long aren’t necessarily what toddlers look for in life. There’s a good reason toddler programs change activities regularly and alternate busy playtime with quiet downtime activities.

  • Pick and choose. You aren’t required to attend every party.
  • Set appropriate time limits. Aim to leave the party with enough time to settle into your usual bedtime routine.
  • Bring your own toddler food. Most adults don’t eat on a toddler’s schedule, but a hungry toddler is a frustrated toddler.
  • Remain engaged. Some toddlers love to be surrounded by other big kids, while others prefer to stick close to parents. Engage with your child during the party.
  • Be prepared to leave. Sometimes parties are great fun and it’s time to go before you know it, but sometimes toddlers become overstimulated and overwhelmed. It’s okay to leave early if your toddler is coming unglued.

 Making memories

I remember seeing a great list of upcoming holiday activities in town and thinking that I wanted to make it to every single one. In reality, we only went to the tree lighting. The best memories with toddlers are often made in the comfort of your own home. It’s fun to watch parades and take sleigh rides, but it’s important to remember that there will be time for this when your kids are a little older. There is no pressure to do every single thing every single year. Slow down. Find one or two toddler-approved events. Make the bulk of your memories at home.


  • Toddlers love to “help” in the kitchen, and holiday baking is always fun.
  • Build your holiday book library and read together.
  • Have a family pajama party with holiday music and sweet treats.
  • Do a fun holiday craft (think paper plate Santa or a handprint menorah.)

Focus on the giving

We all love to see the excitement in their eyes when they open gifts. As parents, giving to our children feels good. I learned early on that 3-4 gifts are plenty for little ones. It can take all day to open more than that!

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Focus on the fun of giving by involving your toddler in the choosing and wrapping of gifts for cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends. Better yet, help your toddler choose a new toy to donate to another child. Toddlers might not understand that there are other toddlers who need help, but they do know that it’s fun to give a toy to someone else. The best way to show the true magic of the holiday season is to help your children understand the power of giving to others.

How do you help set realistic holiday expectations for your toddler?

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Skip the Frustration by Setting Realistic Holiday Expectations

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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