Deciding on thoughtful gifts, decorating the home, making delicious food, and coordinating with friends and family – this common holiday to-do list is enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed or stressed at times. In fact, an American Psychological Association poll found that eight out of ten households say they experience stress during the holidays. This stress was increased for caregivers and for households that have children. And if your family is recovering from a past trauma, loss or disaster, or if the holidays coincide with the anniversary of a disaster, you may feel even more stress.
We frequently think about how stress affects us and what we can do to reduce it, but have you ever thought about how holiday stress, and how you react to it, might be impacting the kids in your life? The holidays provide an opportunity for you to help children by teaching them how to manage stress and their holiday expectations, as well as learn about concepts such as gratitude and giving back.
One of the keys to helping children manage stress is recognizing how they show it. Changes in children’s regular behavior may be signs of stress. Nervous behaviors like nail biting or complaints of not feeling good are also signs of stress in children. Indicators of more severe stress and anxiety include regression to younger behaviors (such as temper tantrums), and withdrawal from family and friends.
Children may be especially stressed during this season if other factors, such as major life changes or losses for the family, have occurred around the holidays. In addition, the disruption of regular routines or travel to unfamiliar places, while exciting, may also create some anxiety or unease in young children. The ability to recognize these stress signs in the kids in your life gives you the opportunity to help them and teach them great coping habits.
Here are some tips for ways that you can help prevent children from experiencing these stress related symptoms and behaviors:
• Discuss holiday plans in advance: Familiarize children with what they should expect over the holidays. This includes telling them who they will see, what they might eat, what activities there may be, and if they will be expected to follow new rules.
• Try to keep a stable routine: Traveling for the holidays almost always means that there will be a disruption in the child’s daily routine. Try to minimize this disruption as much as possible by sticking to bedtimes/naptimes, providing familiar foods, and bringing some of the child’s favorite things with them during travel.
• Take care of yourself: Take steps to reduce your own stress. Stay active, practice relaxation, eat healthy foods, and get a proper night’s sleep. Your children will learn to respond to holiday stress by watching how you respond. Taking steps to make sure that you are able to respond in a positive way is one way to prevent your children from experiencing holiday stress.
• If a loved one will be missing from this year’s holidays: Celebrating holidays without a loved one can be especially stressful for children. Try not to abandon holiday traditions in the aftermath of a familial loss. Keeping traditions can help children retain a sense of normalcy around the holidays.
By recognizing stress and taking steps to manage it, for yourself and the kids around, you can enjoy all of the best parts of making holiday memories.
Rachel Kaul is the Behavioral Health Team Lead for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.