How to Help Your Children Weather the Storm of Holiday StressNov 17, 2016 06:17PM ● By Melanie Heisinger
By Angel Biasatti
Holiday celebrations can be a magical time of year. The family traditions. Your home decked out in twinkling lights. The wide-eyed anticipation of Santa Claus and excitement on Christmas morning as children discover their gifts under the tree.
Unfortunately, the holidays can also stir feelings of stress and depression, even in children.
“We take it for granted that kids love the holidays. And what’s not to love: the break from school, parties and presents. But just as the holidays can take a toll on adults, they can have a negative impact on children too,” explains Mary Ann Weaver, MD, family medicine physician on the medical staff at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center.
Here is some advice for helping your children enjoy their holiday season.
- Manage expectations. It starts with the parents’ approach. “Don’t expect everything to be perfect,” says Weaver. “If holidays tend to be a time of conflict in your family or you’ve recently experienced the loss of a loved one, putting pressure on everyone to all get along or be cheerful could add to the family’s anxiety. And no matter what your children’s ages, they pick up on this discord.”
- Go easy on the scheduling. “There are only so many hours in the day. Keep your focus on family and friends — the ones you enjoy being with,” she recommends. “The holidays lose their luster if you and your children are exhausted and your stomach is in knots trying to please everyone.”
- Gain perspective. In the midst of something stressful, it can feel worse than it actually is. “Volunteer with your children at a local assisted living center, food pantry or animal shelter. Suggest that your kids draw pictures for members of the police and fire departments or the nurses at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center who are working during the holidays. This can help you and your children get a fresh perspective on something that was weighing on their minds,” says Weaver.
- Take a time out. Take your kids to explore Mansfield’s hike and bike trails. Dust off your tennis racquets, kick around the soccer ball or shoot some hoops at a local athletic facility. Escape to the movies.
- Go old school. Encourage the entire family (mom and dad, too) to unplug. Dig out those puzzles and board games. String popcorn. Play charades or Twister. “Be silly, laugh and have fun,” says Weaver.
- Stick to routines. As much as you can, keep your family’s usual sleep and mealtime schedules. “Routines can help your children better handle stress,” says Weaver.
- Limit your children’s time on social media. Comparing yourself to peers can cause anxiety, especially during the holidays when so much is posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “A number of studies suggest that spending too much time on social media can be associated with depression,” says Weaver. “It is so important to be familiar with what your kids are posting and discussing and the long term consequences of negative posts on social media,” she adds. “Teaching your children about cyber bullying is also important so your child can recognize it and feel comfortable telling you when it is happening to them.”
- Be honest. “It’s OK to tell your children that you’re sad because a family member passed away this year, and older kids can understand that you may have a limited budget for gift-giving,” says Weaver. “Be open but reassuring. Tell them that it may have been a challenging year, but you’re grateful for the time you spend together and are so proud of them. Talking about obvious issues can help your children feel less stress or sadness leading up to the holidays.”
- Give thanks. Talk about the things in your life that you’re grateful for and encourage your children to share as well.
- Take care of yourself. Children are affected by the emotional well-being of their parents. “Holiday blues can be contagious,” says Weaver. “If you’re not managing your emotions, your children are more likely to feel that way too.”
- Collaborate. Divorced and blended families face additional challenges. “This is one of the most important times of year to set aside differences and work together,” recommends Weaver. “Don’t make your child choose how much time they want to spend at either parent’s house. This draws them into adult issues and raises their stress level,” she explains. “Maintain their relationships with loving, supportive adults. These safe, stable, and nurturing relationships can counteract the effects of any toxic stress children may feel between their parents.”
How do you know if your child’s holiday blues are something more serious?
- Symptoms of depression. “The signs of depression in children are similar as those for adults: self-criticism, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal from friends and things they once found enjoyable, irritability, anger or nervousness,” says Weaver. “These symptoms can manifest as crying, complaints of headaches or stomachaches and changes in mood or sleeping and eating habits.”
- Trust your intuition. If you think your child is overly stressed or depressed, you’re probably right. “While it’s not unusual for kids to have a down day — especially adolescents and teenagers — moodiness that intensifies, lasts longer than usual or spills over into their school or social life could signal something more serious,” says Weaver. “The first step is getting your child to talk about what they’re feeling.”
- Get help. Instead of trying to cheer up your child or talk her out of feeling sad, acknowledge those feelings. “Just as you would take your child to the doctor if she had the flu, talk to your family physician if your child’s blues linger or get worse,” says Weaver. “Depression is a condition that can be treated successfully, and what your child learns during the process will help her throughout life.”
Angel Biasatti is director community and public relations at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center.
Mary Ann Weaver, MD, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center.
Texas law prohibits hospitals from practicing medicine. The physicians on the Methodist Health System medical staff are independent practitioners who are not employees or agents of Methodist Health System.