Why is your toddler so naughty on holiday?

Why do children feel the need to misbehave when you go away on holiday? Child psychologist Dr Richard Woolfson explains your toddler's change in behaviour.

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Family holidays – one of the reasons they’re so much fun is because they provide a break from your routine. There’s less pressure, fewer demands to make schedules and more self-indulgence. So you’d probably expect your toddler to be well behaved – after all, he has as much to gain from holidays as everyone else in the family. Yet the exact opposite often happens and toddler behaviour usually gets worse on holiday, not better.

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Holidays muck up routines

In most instances, rapid change unsettles young children. Your toddler likes his routine at home, his toys, his bedroom, his cutlery – everything he’s familiar with. Then along comes holiday time and suddenly he’s being rushed through airports, crammed onto public transport and eventually taken to a strange building with a strange bed and strange surroundings.

You’re thinking that the hotel you’ve booked is absolutely wonderful, but your child’s thoughts are, “I’m not sure about this. I’d prefer to be at home.”

Why your toddler’s behaviour turns bad

Combine the feeling that the family is on a different agenda (mummy and daddy are around at the same time, everyone’s playing all day long) with a lack of familiarity, and that’s why your toddler is less cooperative than you expect.

It’s not that he’s deliberately being disruptive – misbehaviour is his way of showing you that his confidence and wellbeing have temporarily dipped a little. Reassure him with extra attention on the first night. Take his toys along, and you could also play familiar music on your MP3 player when it’s bedtime.

Stick to the routine when you can

Another reason why holidays can have a negative effect on your toddler’s behaviour is that he thinks: “Great. Mum and dad are behaving differently while we’re here, so I can be as silly as I want too!” In other words, he misinterprets the break as a sign that anything goes.

At least for the first few days, stick to similar times for core activities, such as mealtimes and bedtime. That way while you’re on ‘holiday time’ he’ll feel like there’s enough routine and his behaviour should settle after a few days.

Try this…

If your toddler is more boisterous or less helpful than usual, resist the temptation to get annoyed or over-discipline. Instead, pick a quieter activity for you both, so he calms down along with you, rather than being told off.

How to make your holidays feel just like home for your toddler

  • Tell him what’s happening – tell your toddler about the holiday in advance, to give him time to adjust psychologically.
  • Be flexible – if your child seems unsettled, don’t push for a day trip or activity, just relax instead.
  • Keep it familiar – going self-catering can help you create a home-from-home.
  • Stay firm – it’s OK to give your toddler time to settle in but do continue to manage him gently and firmly.
  • One day at a time – allow your child some leeway in the first few days of the holiday. After that, however, your usual expectation about his good behaviour should apply.
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