Dealing with the Holidays

Posted on December 15, 2013. Category: Children's Clinic Blog

Everyone loves the Holidays! Right? Well, some folks definitely love this time of year. For others that list of “to do’s” is more overwhelming and stress-inducing than a cause for cheer. But what if you are raising children who have mental and behavioral health problems or kids who have experienced trauma in their past? Do children experience holiday stress, right along with adults?

The answer is that yes, some children do. And as anyone who’s ever dealt with a stressed out kid (translation: one who is irritable, not listening, refusing to do what you ask, or even having temper tantrums) knows, nothing puts a damper on “fun” and “cheer” like an uncooperative and unhappy child (or teen!)

Here’s the catch: unlike adults, who may have any number of people they feel comfortable sharing their tales of holiday woe and stress with, children are much less likely to verbally communicate to you that they are feeling “stressed out” (unless they say that kind of thing already). Either they aren’t even aware of it and/or they communicate how they are feeling with their behaviors, not their words , which is extremely common (and the holidays are probably not the time to try to change it if this describes your child).

So, what to do?

Know Your Child: Knowing your child’s particular patterns and challenges is key here. If too much noise, large crowds, “doing too much”, breaks in routine, depression, worrying, or getting irritable when they don’t get their way are situations your child does not do well in or problems your child is dealing with, then expect that anything that aggravates those issues is going to cause stress. Remind yourself also of the initial symptoms your child displays when something is going amiss for them: do they pout? Space out? Cry easily? Get testy when asked to do something? Talk back? Separate themselves from others? Many situations can be headed off by the parent who picks up on these cues and helps their child to get back on track to avoid the meltdown that is just a few minutes away.

Take Care of Yourself: Keep in mind that when our plates are full it can be easy to temporarily forget all of the above while we run around with too much to do and not enough (never enough!) time to do it all in. Do not attempt to “perfect parent” yourself into craziness trying to do everything AND keep your child calm and serene 100% of the time. In fact, the easier you are on yourself during the holidays and the calmer you can be, the better the chances that your child will follow suit. That includes not being hard on yourself over upsets that your child has, or your inability to have forecasted all those events and stopped them. For those who are parenting children with mental health and behavioral problems, the key is often to do less, not more, during the holidays and to genuinely enjoy the things they are doing. Happy parent = happy kid ( or at least happier kid), while not a foolproof formula, is generally pretty accurate.

Consider the Excitement Level: “Excitement” can be a similar feeling to “anxiety” and the line between those two feelings is a fine one for some children, especially those who have an anxiety disorder, emotional problems, or those who have experienced trauma. Many children can only tolerate small doses of holiday cheer before they combust, so before attending parties or gatherings, consider your child’s schedule for the time that precedes and follows those gatherings. You may need to modify your plans, shorten visits, or skip some events entirely to avoid overbooking your child’s schedule. You may also consider planning with the child beforehand for them to take “breathers” during longer events. That can be a nap, some quiet time by themselves or with a special adult, a chance to read a book together, a quiet board game; anything that brings the excitement level down several notches. Be thoughtful about when that break occurs: if the rest of the children are running around having the time of their lives, it will be difficult to tear your child away (even if it’s pre-planned) without causing a scene. You may want to coordinate with other adults at the event for a planned breather with all the kids, whether your child participates in that or really needs time away from the group in order to reduce stimulation levels.

Routines: The Holiday Season is defined by many things, but one of the biggest and most basic is that it’s a break in routine for everyone. Just consider a few of the changes many of us expect to occur: we eat different foods at different meal times, we see different people, we engage in different activities, we may wear different clothing while we go different places, we have different bed times, we stop going to school/work, and we may be receiving new (and exciting! and maybe stressful to put together!) material items that take up a lot of our attention. And while all that can be fun and add to the joy of the season, for children who have mental health disorders or behavioral problems all this break from routine can cause genuine distress, which inevitably is going to be acted out unless we find a way to stop it before it starts. Enjoy the season, but as much as possible reduce the number of changes to your child’s routine especially during the course of a single day or across several days. That can mean a familiar meal in the hours before heading off to a holiday lunch or dinner; bringing a change of “comfy” clothes to longer, formal affairs; making sure that any “special” time you share with an individual child doesn’t fall off the schedule (or is made up for when it does); keeping regular bedtime routines even if the times are off; not letting later bedtimes creep across and entire school holiday vacation period; and making sure that wake up times and routines also don’t go too far off from the norm, especially over the course of several days.

Exercising and Helping Out: Kids (and yes, adults too), but especially kids, need exercise and fresh air, even in the colder months. A child who has no outlet to burn off that extra energy is not a child who is going to be especially easy to deal with and a child who gets no exercise (to the point that they refuse to engage in it) is likely going to be even harder. Children and teens need to move in order to function optimally and it’s even more important for those with mental health and behavioral issues. Why? Because, among many other benefits, it’s been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and to improve sleep, school functioning, and self esteem. Get them out there, and if at all possible, join them. As for helping you out during the holidays, focusing attention on a single activity can help children to slow down as well as making them feel great about themselves. Kids love to “help” and the more they can do something constructive with their time, the less likely they are to become destructive. While teens may grumble more than younger children about helping out, allowing them to choose the things they’d like to help with can reduce some of that complaining considerably. Plus, letting them pursue those interests can not only build self esteem but may end up with you having a “right hand gal/guy” for those activities in the future. And while many parents say that allowing their kids to “help” can often end up being more time consuming and difficult than not, keep in mind that you can tailor activities to the child’s abilities, not to your actual need for “help”. If they want to bake cookies but that’s not really what you need, finding a way for them to join in the activity that’s actually more about the “fun” part and less about making it happen can be a great way to compromise. The classic “help” is cleaning off the beaters or the bowl after the cake batter/cookie dough is safely in the oven; meanwhile, they can help by getting all their toys out from underfoot, or picking up pine needles from the shedding tree, or stopping the cat from trying to climb said tree. (And yes, “tree security detail” can be a real thing. It is if you say it is!)

Lastly, if you have a traumatized child, be wary about what the holidays might represent or mean to that child. Asking simple, thoughtful questions before the season even begins is a good way to start. Are they looking forward to the celebrations? Is there anything they worry about when they think about the holidays? Is there anything that you/your family can do to make the holidays more fun/happy for them? Getting answers to these questions ahead of time can go a long way to ensuring that everyone has a good time, most of the time.

In conclusion: joy to you and yours and may you have a safe, happy, and memorable holiday season!
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