It’s Most Wonder...er....Stressful Time of the Year: Tips on Helping Kids Through the Holidays
Whether you love or loathe the holidays, one thing is for sure: emotions run high during this time of year. Even if you are a person that loves “all things holiday,” this season comes with inevitable stresses, changes, and demands. Just as the holidays can be a stressful time for us, it can also be a stressful (and/or emotionally charged) time for our children. For some families, the holidays can be a time of sadness, where they are managing changes that come along with divorce, the death of a loved one, or separation from a family member.
While the watchful eye of Santa/Elf on the shelf/Mench on the bench *might* help some moments run smoothly - a bit of preparation, support, and extra time can make things easier for both caregivers and children. Additionally, these tips can help sustain you when the season has passed, and will help encourage positive behavior throughout the year (even when helpers are "off duty").
Anticipate your child’s needs. Take a moment to think about the aspects of the season (and the weeks ahead) that might be difficult for your child. One place to start is thinking about your child’s temperament. Is your child very active? Is your child an introvert (*raising my own hand*)? Does your child get easily overwhelmed and have difficulty with changes in routine?
Thinking about the aspects of the season that may pose particular challenges for your child can help you prepare and support them in potentially difficult situations. If your child is very active, consider shopping online to avoid long shopping trips, and make sure your child has opportunities for energy/movement breaks during long events. If your child is an introvert, practice saying hello and good-bye to people, and make sure to give them space and permission to ease into new situations with unfamiliar people. If your child gets easily overwhelmed, or struggles with routine changes, make sure you schedule break times, and don’t be afraid to decline an invitation or two.
Don’t overschedule. While this is particularly important for a child that is easily over-stimulated, all children thrive with routine and predictability. While the hustle, bustle, and chaos of the season is part of the fun, make sure you schedule downtime (both for you, and your child). Set aside time away from stimulation and situations that require heightened expectations (a 10-minute walk outside can be enough). If possible, set-aside “special time” with your child, where you engage in an activity or craft, or play with toys along with your child. Even 5 minutes a day where the demands are reduced can have a significant impact, and the connection can help calm and regulate your child. Also, make sure to prioritize sleep and rest if possible!
Help your child prepare, and set expectations. During this time of year, everything is different. Sights, sounds, and schedules are all new, and change is everywhere. While this is also part of the special excitement, all of this change can be a lot for young children to process. Given that schedule changes and new experiences are an inevitable part of the season, help your child by discussing plans in advance. When children know what to expect, they are better able to cope with new experiences. You may want to give your child a visual schedule of the day, or spend some time discussing a new experience they will have, or a new place they will visit. An explicit discussion about expectations (how to behave, what they can and can’t do during a specific time) can also help to set your child up for success. While we often assume kids will implicitly know what is expected of them, this is often an unreasonable and unrealistic expectation (particularly if the rules are different in a guests home or a new environment). During holiday events, check-in with your child, give them feedback on how they are doing (particularly if they are doing great!). If your child is having a difficult time, take them away from the chaos (and away from strangers) to discuss, process, and help calm them before returning to the event.
Engage in purposeful work and giving back. Including your child in the preparations and activities can help make new experiences meaningful, and a time for learning. This can also help your child stay calm while new routines are happening (instead of whining about wanting to do something else). Children often thrive when they can be “big helpers,” and enjoy feeling the sense of responsibility of helping bake or cook a special meal, checking off a list, or helping to put up decorations. You may even consider participating in a service-oriented project with your child, such as donating to a toy or food drive, or delivering and preparing meals for others. Such activities help to instill a sense of responsibility in children, and help them learn some of the more powerful lessons the season has to offer.
Manage your own stress. This time of year is stressful for caregivers. Make sure you model self-care, and use stressful moments as teaching opportunities. When you are frustrated, take deep breaths and tell your child that you are feeling frustrated, but you are trying to calm down. Model and teach calming techniques, and make sure you are engaging in self-care (it is hard to give what we need when we don’t take care of ourselves first!). Be sure to be easy on yourself as a caregiver. Sometimes we might feel disappointed that a special moment, party, or holiday photo shoot (see above example) didn't go the way we thought it would in our (hopeful) minds. Find the joy in the choas, and the opportunity to learn in the imperfect.
Give your child the gift of time. While it might be tempting this time of year to manage behavior with extra gifts, what children most need (and want) is a centered caregiver who can give them time, affection, and attention.