If you’re like the majority of parents I’ve  ever talked to during a holiday season, you have likely found yourself threatening to cancel the holidays based on your child’s bad behavior. 

It sounds something like this:  

  • “I’ll tell Santa not to come!” 
  • “I’ll send all those wrapped gifts right back to the store… Don’t believe me? Just watch me!!!”
  • “I’ve got Santa’s elves on my phone and they’re about to put you on the Naughty List if you don’t shape up!”
  • “That’s it! We’re staying HOME this year!”

No shame here…  almost every parent with difficult-to-raise children have fallen into this trap. And believe me, as “right” as it feels in the *very heated* moment to make these kinds of threats, they are a trap.

Not just for your child, but for you, too.

Let’s talk about why this approach does not work for our kids, why it actually may be making things worse for your family, and one big, mind-shifting idea of what to do instead.

1. Why Canceling the Holidays Isn’t Going to Work Anyway.

When I coach parents about how to decide which parenting strategies to use when their children are misbehaving, the first question I have them ask themselves is “What am I trying to accomplish with this response right now?”

When we take away things our kids love or are looking forward to, the thing we are trying to accomplish is to motivate our kids to behave better. 

If we are talking in terms of carrots (rewards) and sticks (punishments), cancelling the holidays is a big-ass-stick. And the rationale is, if there is something out there that he REALLY REALLY wants to avoid losing, then it will make him try REALLY REALLY hard to behave. … *and here’s the leap* … and he wants it bad enough, he WILL behave. 

That’s one really big leap. With a lot of variables in between the child’s desire and the child’s ability. 

And this leap is where almost all parents falter. 

As Ross Greene says, “children do well when they can.” Notice he does not say, “children do well when they want to.” 

Teaching children how to do well – how to develop the self-regulation skills needed to do well in life – takes effort. And a lot more than just motivation. 

Remember, ADHD is a developmental day in the parts of the brain that are responsible for self-regulation skills. Self-regulation skills include things like impulse control, emotional regulation, working memory, time management.

Skills that neurotypical children their biological age learn relatively naturally come very hard for your child and at a delayed rate

When I get push back from parents about the idea that motivation alone will not help your child perform a skill (or in other words, behave) if they lack the skills needed to do so, the conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: “If you are taking away the Holidays, I presume that you have taken away things they like / enjoy in the past. You certainly wouldn’t jump to taking away Christmas if you hadn’t already tried less dramatic threats before.”

Parent: “Of course! We’ve tried taking away everything. Screens, friends, toys. It seems the holidays are all the leverage I have left.” 

Me: *Long Pause* “So, if this approach of ‘taking away’ hasn’t been successful up until now, why do you think it’s going to begin to be successful now?”

Parent: **Silence** “I guess I don’t know what else to do.”

Hmmmmm. Let’s do better. 

{This post doesn’t even touch on the fact that cancelling the holidays is an empty threat that you most likely will never follow through on … just another reason this approach isn’t advised.}

2. Why Threatening the Holidays Is Likely to Backfire on You

A lack of emotional regulation is becoming recognized by ADHD experts as a hallmark of this condition that is way too often overlooked and misunderstood. 

Kids with ADHD commonly struggle to manage frustrations, disappointments, and fears. When these kids are dysregulated they have meltdowns, become hyperfocused on negative things, express defiance, and generally lack access to many of the self-regulation skills they normally would have access to. 

Let me give you a couple of examples. 

Normally, it’s not difficult for your child to speak to you respectfully. However, when he is stressed or worried, his temper flares faster and you notice that his disrespectful tendencies come faster and more “easily.” 

How about this one – normally it’s within your child’s skill set to start her homework at a certain time. But when she’s really worried or dreading something about that homework you find that she exhibits work-avoidance behaviors. You find her lying about having work done that isn’t. Or you find that she “forgets” her assignments at school and gets extremely mad when you challenge her.

The bottom line is this – It’s more difficult for our kids to stay regulated and in full access of their skills when they are stressed.

So it follows that when you place an enormous amount of stress upon them – by threatening to take away the most important holiday season of the year (at least in their little minds) many of them will have LESS access to the skills you want them to use. 

When you motivate by fear, you are often setting them up to fail.

This happened to us when I was parenting my ADHD’er as a young boy. He was a mess. His behavior at school was appalling. His behavior at home wasn’t much better. His grades were suffering. His friendships were at an all time low. 

When he would get in trouble at home, we would find ourselves threatening to “call Santa,” and telling him that “kids on the naughty list got coal for Christmas.”

His behavior didn’t change. In fact, often – despite his best efforts – his behavior escalated at times. His meltdowns intensified in number, duration, and violence. 

And despite our threats, we didn’t cancel the holidays. 

Our son was dysregulated the entire holiday. It was no fun for any of us. 

The morning that Santa came to our house, my son ran upstairs. He saw his pile of gifts and he fell to the ground. He started crying and I curled up next to him to ask him why he was sad. 

I will never forget his little voice: “Mom, I’ve been so worried that Santa was going to bring me coal. He didn’t bring me coal.”

He was so relieved. And it was so obvious to me in that moment that all of our empty threats in the weeks leading up to this holiday hadn’t done anything to make the situation better. 

By continually threatening that I was going to have Santa put him on the Naughty List I had given my child a huge dose of anxiety, and I had ensured for myself even more behavior that I didn’t want. 

2. How to Handle Holiday Misbehavior Instead

Moving from fear-based, motivation-focused parenting into a more heart-centered holistic kind of parenting that helps kids with ADHD thrive is a process that cannot be boiled down into one blog post.

Here are three tidbits to keep you on the right path this holiday season:

1. Remember that what we pay attention to grows — focus more on what your child is doing well and let him or her know that you see it.

2. Focus on teaching skills more than motivation. Forget about the Nice or Naughty List, and ask yourself what skills your child needs to learn in order to be more successful in various situations. Remember that ADHD is a real obstacle for them. Learn what you can.

3. Help your child feel good about doing good. The holidays are a time for unconditional love and redemption and when we practice those things we feel good about ourselves. (It’s a magnificent side effect of doing good deeds). Help your child feel those feelings of goodness by committing random acts of kindness, helping out a neighbor, or volunteering in the community. When we feel good, we do better.

If you’re interested in starting on a transformational journey to becoming the parent your child needs you to be, grab my free ADHD Parenting Workshop below.