The holidays are a hectic time for many adults. Add the factors of travel, anticipation and parties and you may have some stressed out kids too. Mary Elliott, WEG Communications consultant, talks with Dr. Lisi Levisohn about practical tips that can help any family enjoy a more peaceful winter break.
Dr. Levisohn, does everyone feel stress around the holidays? Is it natural?
What I sense from the media and discussions with others over the years is that it is indeed common to feel stress around the holidays—there is pressure to make everything great, to find the perfect present for everyone, or sometimes the stress is around complicated relationships with extended family. But in my practice, thinking of the kids I’ve worked with, I’d have to say they are really looking forward to the holidays – whether it is Christmas or Hanukkah. In fact, I suspect most kids don’t see the holidays as a stressor. They see it as a welcome release from what they are experiencing in school or throughout the rest of the year. And they are excited about the specialness of the holidays—and all kinds of good associations they have.
That said, there are still aspects of the holidays which could be stressful for children, especially for a kid who might have anxiety, be twice exceptional, or have some processing issues. One potential source of stress relates to uncertainty. For example, if your child feels anxious when they don’t know what to expect, whether it is a change in routine or they are not sure what the expectations for them are going to be, or whether they will be able to handle those expectations, that can be a source of stress. Sometimes, if they know something big is coming, even though it might be something they look forward to, it can be a source of underlying stress. Their mind and their body are getting ready for something unusual and something big, so they are getting signals that they are supposed to be on high alert. The other source of potential anxiety would a social one for a child who might have more trouble interacting with a big group. So, with the holidays, there can be uncertainty with travel plans, lots of anticipation, and plenty of social interactions like parties - all of which can be challenging for many kids.
Although most kids are looking forward to the holidays and would say it is a happy time, sometimes when parents themselves are filled with anticipation or stress, that can translate into their interactions with their children. Through their body language and intonation, parents can be expressing their own holiday stress. Kids can pick up on that.
How can the holidays be less stressful for children who have ADHD, anxiety or other challenges?
One thing is just to pay attention to your own feelings. Reassure yourself, as the parent, that it is a time of joy. Take a little time to center yourself, especially in your interactions with your kids. If there is something big coming up, it can be helpful to talk about the event a few days beforehand in a very relaxing way.
Talking through an event in advance, describing the place, even looking at pictures online of the venue is a relaxed, preparatory walk thru. This way, things won’t seem so uncertain or unpredictable and the child can start to visualize and imagine the place or the event.
A parent might use a schedule, even if it is going to a party, and help their child by breaking up the evening into parts. This way, you give the event a structure and it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. And perhaps most importantly, the child knows this party is not endless.
Pay attention to your child’s needs. Maybe that holiday party would be great for an hour. You do not have to totally pass, instead you can make it a smaller adventure. Make a plan that you’ll check in with each other at a certain time, and that way you can see how your child is feeling. These are good skills to teach kids anyway. You are modeling a healthy strategy and teaching planned flexibility.
You don’t want to let your kids dictate every plan and decision in your family life—that wouldn’t be good for your kids either! But, including your kids in some decisions can feel reassuring and empowering to them. For a family vacation, you can give your kids some choices, by saying, “Here are the two places we’re thinking about going, which one appeals to you most?” It’s good to allow children to weigh in when planning a special trip, because this gives them some feeling of control along the way.
How might reducing screen time help reduce stress?
It’s best to stick to whatever your house rules are about technology and individual devices during a regular weekend, even as you head into vacation time. For car travel, if your kids have screens in front of them, set a schedule so they take breaks and don’t get overwhelmed by it. Bottom line is to set up routines in advance, make sure your kids know them. Too much screen time can take a toll, so limits can benefit the emotional health of your child.
On the flip side, watching a movie together is different than the kinds of video games that kids might do online or with another kid, and they impact their mood differently. Cuddling up on a couch and watching a movie with your child can be a wonderful positive tradition during the holidays.
What are some tangible ways that all families can slow down and find joy during this hectic time?
Sometimes kids resist a planned activity, but it is okay to say, “We’re just going to do this now for a while.” They usually end up enjoying it. Take a winter walk in the woods or visit your favorite hiking trails. Get out into nature as a family, even in the winter. It’s fun to bundle up and go out. As a parent, I know from experience that following up an activity with hot chocolate or ice cream always makes it more fun and special. Take in interesting holiday displays walking through town, or paint pottery as a group activity (even teenage boys can get into that sort of thing!). Take your child to an arts and crafts store, pick out some new supplies so it is already a treat, and then go home and create. If a child is older, ask her to help you build a fire in the fireplace, and then sit together and enjoy it afterwards.
Do you have any gift giving ideas for students that also promote wellness?
Tap into your child’s strengths. For visual spatial learners, there are a lot of great puzzles out there.
Let’s say you have a child that is dyslexic or dysgraphic, but they are really talented building or solving strategy puzzles. So much of school is language-based and text-based, which can be frustrating and difficult. At home, you can provide toys that highlight their unique strengths and help them feel successful.
Give a gift that can become a happy and peaceful family activity. If your younger child experiences frustration at school, consider a gift like building blocks that can be worked on in the center of the family. As you child is working, give him positive feedback. This tells your child that he is smart and has talents that people admire.
Pretending toys, depending on the age of the kids, can be great. Even a pack of little dinosaurs, can lead in to a pretending activity with your child and many great conversations. Whether your children are good at pretending, or you want to model pretending for them, stuffed animals, dolls, even little cars can be a nice way to lead into pretend play, which is great for all kids’ development.
Consider giving a good book, one that can be read aloud or shared. There are lots of options for younger kids, but even for older kids, large "coffee table books" with photography around an area of interest, cookbooks or books with jokes or funny stories can bring the family together.
If your kid is into music, download a new album that the family can listen to together. Or if your child plays an instrument, consider a gift that can recognize that skill and then enjoy an impromptu concert.
So, a big takeaway here is that parents consider giving gifts that can be enjoyed by the whole family in one way or another. Also, it’s helpful to pick gifts that allow children to show their strengths and lead to greater parent-child engagement.
Any last words for parents, Dr. Levisohn?
If you suspect that your child might be stressed about an upcoming holiday event, just open the conversation. Just ask, “Are you feeling a little anxious? Is there something that’s on your mind?” And if they are, be sure to validate and sympathize with that feeling, and then talk about what’s coming up. Help them understand that feeling, and that it is normal and something can be done about it. And if your child isn’t as verbal, try introducing an activity that is peaceful to help reduce those anxious feelings.
Lisi Levisohn, PhD is a licensed psychologist, a developmental neuropsychologist, and mother of two teenage boys and one teenage daughter in Silver Spring, MD. Dr. Levisohn provides neuropsychological and psychological assessments for WEG. This week, she’ll be enjoying her own family’s peaceful, laid-back Hanukkah traditions.