How to Help Your Child Navigate Holiday Stress
It's that time of year, that incredibly overwhelming stretch between October 31 and December 25 — the equivalent of the witching hour in the calendar year. Everyone — kids and adults alike — seems to get stressed out during this holiday gauntlet.
As a parent, you’re distressed. You just want to make it through. Your kids are cranky and acting out. When you imagine the holidays, this isn’t what you pictured in your head. This shouldn’t be happening; it’s supposed to be an enjoyable time of year. Instead, it becomes a period during which you just want to tear your hair out, shuffling from one thing to another, feeling more ragged each day.
Let’s rethink how we approach the holidays and figure out some ways to make it more pleasant and less stressful!
Rethink yourto-do list
Be conscious about what you choose to do, and keep it as simple as you can. Figure out what brings you joy.
Take a few minutes and think about the holiday traditions you enjoy as a family. Which do you dread? Which overwhelm your children?
Determine what you want your holiday season to look like and rearrange your to-do list accordingly. You can even make a to-don’t list to help reduce seasonal anxiety.
Here are two traditions on my to-don’t list:
• Christmas cards. Of all the things I’m trying to do around the holidays, this is just not a priority for me. We didn’t do it growing up, and I have never had a desire to do it. I tried it one year, but it just overwhelmed me given all the things I really wanted to do and enjoy. Rather than doing something that adds to my stress level, I let it go and focus on other things.
• Elf on the Shelf. Some people love the Elf on the Shelf tradition; I will confess that I’m not one of them. I have big concerns that I’ll forget to do my part, and it seems like unnecessary pressure to put on myself when I’m just trying to make sure presents are wrapped and the tree is decorated. I gave myself permission to opt out of this.
Because I skip the traditions that drain me, I have more energy for the ones I enjoy, like making gingerbread houses with my kids, decorating cookies for Santa, and trimming the tree with homemade ornaments.
I recognize that my family’s list will not match other people’s lists, and that’s perfectly fine. No matter what’s on the list, the goal is for families to feel happy and energized from their traditions, not drained.
For kids who are overwhelmed or stressed, parties can be a challenge. What can you do to make them easier? Here are several tips to help prepare your child for parties, and hopefully make the experience more pleasant for everyone.
Be choosy. Just because you’re invited to a holiday party every weekend doesn’t mean you need to attend them all. Too many parties and gatherings can be overwhelming, so pick and choose. It’s OK to say no. Give yourself permission to have downtime with your family to connect and relax.
Have your child use their imagination: What will the party be like, start to finish? Have children identify which parts of the party will be more difficult. Then have them imagine themselves there and successfully making it through those parts of the party they identified as more challenging. For example, if they struggle with entering a party, have them imagine a successful transition from the car into the house.
• When you arrive, politely explain your child’s needs. Sometimes well-meaning relatives or partygoers will try to force kids to hug, make eye contact, etc. If your child is not able to do that, preparing a brief explanation helps. You want to be able to clearly and succinctly communicate your child’s need for space. This help can prevent you and your child from getting frustrated and keep the other partygoers from being offended.
• When you’re there, fake it! Have your child try their acting skills and just fake it. Ask them to act like the most outgoing person they know and try on that persona for the party.
• Find your people. Identify a couple of people with which your child feels comfortable. Have your child find them and hang out for a bit. You can even offer to drive one of these people to the party. This can help ease the transition and make your child feel more comfortable even before you enter.
• Take a break. I’m an introvert, and sometimes I need a break when I’m at a party. Kids need to learn to do the same. They can go to the bathroom, get a drink, or get a snack. It’s OK to bring a book or a portable gaming system to take a break when needed, just don’t do it the whole time. With your child, determine where a good place to take a break would be, especially when using an electronic device. Usually if other kids see that, they want to know what you’re playing and watch or get a turn. If your child really needs solitude, they need to pick an out-of-the-way spot.
Take time to relax
Schedule downtime for your family during this time of year. Model good coping skills to rejuvenate and gather more energy for the tasks you have ahead of you. Have a holiday movie night where you relax in jammies and have hot cocoa. Or take a drive around late at night and look at the lights and decorations. Read a holiday story together. Play a game together. Dance and sing. Figure out what is relaxing and enjoyable for you as a family, and make sure you take some time to do it.
The holidays are often a stressful time, but we can take action to reduce that stress for our families and ourselves so we can focus on enjoying time together. Isn’t that what the holidays should be all about?
Janine Halloran is founder and CEO of copingskillsforkids.com, where she provides products and resources for parents to help their kids cope with stressful situations in healthy ways. She is also the author of the Coping Skills for Kids Workbook, which offers more than 75 coping strategies to help kids deal with stress, anxiety and anger.