Most of us think of the holiday season as a happy and festive time of the year. We all know, of course, that for some adults it’s a season for stress or sadness. In a perfect world, children would be immune to this, but in reality are they?
Unfortunately, no, says Jonathan Dalton of the Maryland Center for Anxiety Disorders at University of Maryland in College Park. Children — like many adults — are susceptible to holiday stress and, in some cases, even more serious anxiety.
“Kids are often stressed for the same reasons adults are, and they respond to the same kind of stress adults do,” says Dalton, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology. That means travel, gifts, family stress and change can leave children just as unhinged as grown-ups.
The trouble is, kids probably aren’t going to tell you they’re stressed.
How children express their anxiety, says Dalton, is very different from adults. “With younger children — until at least around age 8 or 9 — stress is more somatic or physical. For example, they’ll say ‘my tummy hurts,’” explains Dalton.
In addition to complaining of physical ailments, stressed-out kids tend to be more irritable, they often fight with siblings and friends, and they have more trouble sleeping. It’s not until children move toward adolescence that they have more insight into their thought process and emotions and will be able to let adults know that they’re feeling anxious.
The good news, though, is that parents and caregivers can do a lot to prevent children from ever suffering holiday stress.
A less stressful season
Foremost, adults have to remember that kids crave routine and structure no matter the time of the year, says Dr. David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., and a professor at the University of Vermont. “With festivities and travel it may be difficult, but as much as possible stick to routines such as mealtimes and bedtimes,” he says.
Fassler also recommends discussing holiday plans with your children well in advance. If you’re debating whether to attend certain family holiday parties or events, allow children to offer their two cents. Also be aware that constantly changing plans or making last-minute decisions will increase potential for stress.
Be especially sure to forewarn children of big changes. “It’s best to let them know in advance so it’s not a surprise at the last minute,” Fassler says. For example, if you usually go to a particular grandmother’s home for the holidays but this year you’re going to an aunt’s house, make sure the kids know where they’re going and what you’ll be doing.
Dalton recommends that if you’re going to be in a variety of social situations, before each event give some specifics of the type of behavior you expect (i.e. you’re going to a dinner party and you expect them to sit down with you, eat their meals and ask to be excused when they’re done. Or you’re going to a less formal party and it’s fine for them to wear casual clothes and go off and play with the other kids).
“Let kids know what to expect and what parents expect of kids,” says Dalton. “Parents often overestimate how much kids know about behavior. Kids should be told the rules in advance — use an indoor voice, don’t touch breakables, etc.”
Employing other minor strategies such as leaving extra time so you’re not harried when you travel and not overscheduling activities so children have plenty of downtime can also add up to a much less hectic holiday and much happier children.
Of course, there are some scenarios that can’t be fixed so easily and parents and caregivers have to understand that not all kids will be care-free this holiday season.
Have reasonable expectations
If there's been a recent separation, divorce or death in a family of if children have recently gone through a traumatic event such as losing their home in the recent hurricanes, the holiday season may be especially hard. Likely they'll be responding to the instability in their lives.
“Kids can get used to all kinds of changes but it’s hard for anyone to get used to uncertainty,” says Fassler. Allow kids in these situations to be honest about their feelings and encourage them to talk. Don’t try to get them to put on a happy face and feign excitement if they’re feeling quiet or down.
Furthermore, Fassler warns against making promises you can’t keep. If a child’s parent isn’t around, don’t promise he or she will be home in time for the holidays if you’re not certain. “This year we have a lot of parents on active duty [in Iraq]. Oftentimes, you can’t even promise they’ll call or e-mail,” says Fassler. They may be in an area with limited phone service and computer access.
What you can do, though, is try to uphold and maintain a semblance of family traditions even if so much has changed. If a child always has pancakes on Christmas morning or is used to going to church on Christmas Eve, try to do these things. Rituals and traditions are grounding and they let children know that not everything is so different.
The holiday season like no other seems to be the time adults must be especially cognizant and respectful of a child’s situation. Some kids are simply not outgoing and social, either because of their temperament or due to their circumstances. And, while adults don’t always like it, honoring these qualities will make for a happier holiday.
“Some parents have exaggerated expectations,” warns Denise Chavira, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego.
Chavira says extroverted parents often expect their children to be the life of the party like them. When the children aren’t, for whatever reason, they become disappointed, embarrassed or even angry. This situation, of course, tends to crop up more often around the holidays when there are more parties and public events.
“Remember, it’s not necessarily a problem to be introverted or shy even during the holidays," says Chavira. "These are just variations of personality traits that exist.”
Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.