From the December 2018 issue

How the Holidays Can Wreak Havoc on Kids’ Mental Health

Time off school and high-pressure gatherings can make the season a source of more stress than joy. Here's how to support your child through it.

Brought to you by Flinn Foundation
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You might think the stress-inducing effects of the holiday season hustle and bustle are limited to the grown-ups in the family. But as it turns out, children feel it too.

Experts say kids with mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression could find this time of year particularly challenging. The things your family looks forward to most – a break from the school routine, big holiday events with your relatives and the joy of gift-giving – could end up being unintentional sources of stress.

“It’s so much activity. Your family stress level is high,” says Terri Henrizi, education coordinator for the Association for Children’s Mental Health, a statewide nonprofit family organization serving all of Michigan. “A lot of times we’re packing so much in that it doesn’t give kids their normal amount of downtime.”

For many children, the busy schedule is nothing more than a minor annoyance. But being removed from a predictable routine can send others completely off-kilter. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that changes in family routines can cause stress for children, and it recommends that parents stick to their child’s sleep and mealtime schedules as closely as possible during the busy holiday season.

“That’s one of the main things that’s really challenging, is that your schedule is different,” Henrizi says, adding that the same problems can crop up during other times when school’s out, including spring break and summer vacation.

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Other sources of stress this time of year can include traveling out of town or attending large family gatherings. For kids who struggle with anxiety, even the need to greet rarely seen relatives can drum up feelings of dread.

“When you have kids that have anxiety, for example, and they struggle with events or meeting new people, going to holiday parties just adds an extra level that we’re trying to navigate,” she says.

Even giving and receiving gifts can be a challenge, since kids might dislike being in the spotlight or feel pressure to respond a certain way to the gift. And children who are prone to acting out when stressed might have difficulty holding it together during hours-long get-togethers.

“There’s so much pressure,” Henrizi adds.

So what can parents do to help? The first step is being aware of your child’s limits and adjusting accordingly. You might not get to do everything on your list, but the whole family could feel more at ease with a shorter social schedule.

“The key pieces are being mindful and being realistic about what you expect,” she says. “Try to limit some of the excessive things, which is really hard. Try to say ‘no’ to some stuff.”

Prepare your children for what to expect each day during the holiday break, and give them details on the events they’ll need to attend. If big family dinners are a concern, set expectations in advance about how long you’ll stay and try to give your child a quiet place to take a break if he or she gets overwhelmed.

“If you notice that your kids are withdrawing or really getting irritable, they might not be able to tell you what it is (that’s bothering them),” Henrizi explains. “If things are going poorly, have a plan with your kid for how that’s going to get handled.”

If behavior does become a problem, take it one step at a time and let go of any concerns about judgment from family or friends.

“An ongoing struggle for some families is that they feel uncomfortable and other people don’t (understand)” why the child is acting out, she adds.

Unfortunately, sometimes the automatic response – among family members who aren’t aware of the child’s mental health challenges – is something like, “Oh, that kid just needs to be spanked,” Henrizi says.

“There’s a lack of understanding,” she says. “Don’t feel that you need to explain everything.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics also points out in an article at healthychildren.org that a form of “holiday blues” can affect children.

“Remember that many children and adults experience a sense of loss, sadness or isolation during the holidays,” the AAP notes. “It is important to be sensitive to these feelings and ask for help for you, your children, family members or friends if needed.”

Henrizi has noticed that, too. “Kids with mental health challenges, and all kids, have such an expectation that everything should be so great and so fun. The holidays get portrayed like it’s this great thing,” she says. “When they don’t feel that way, it can actually make their mental health worse. Expectations are a big challenge.”

Seek out support with other parents who can relate, and be open with your kids about the things coming up that they may struggle with. “Talk with them about that ahead of time. What might help?”

And don’t forget to keep up with your own proper eating and sleeping habits. “It’s hard to do,” Henrizi acknowledges, but it’s key to your parenting success. “Make sure to take time to take care of yourself.”

Brought to you by the Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. For more information, visit flinnfoundation.org.

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