Behind the tinsel, frosted cookies and wrapped gifts is a hidden truth about the holiday season: It can be stressful on children.
The sources are many, from erratic schedules and sadness about gifts not received to behavioral expectations in a season where standards can be unrealistically high. To help parents, guardians and others plan and cope, ProMedica HealthConnect spoke with experts Doreen Pant and Janice Bohmler from Harbor, a Toledo-based mental health counseling organization in Toledo.
“Parents are often under stress this time of year, positively or negatively, but not all parents realize how much stress kids can be under,” said Pant, a clinical social worker. “That’s key: Having parents on board to know that kids can experience stress.”
Here are the more common sources of holiday stress, and strategies for coping.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year (sort of)
The holiday season introduces a lot of change for children. For example, traditional routines are off. As a result, they sleep less (or too much). Eating patterns change, too (giving in to those sugar cravings). Throughout the weeks-long school break, they are making different choices than normal.
“There is so much emphasis on doing so much. It almost lends itself to being a letdown because we spend weeks and months planning for a specific holiday event,” Pant said. Even in good times, holidays can be stressful because extra things are added to our schedule.
As a result, “It’s good to plan ahead, to think about ways to be more mindful, find more calmness, meaning and joy in your day rather than focus on all the hustle and bustle and materialism,” Pant said. That holds true for adults and children.
Hallmark families exist … on the Hallmark Channel
The perfect or near-perfect families portrayed on TV and in movies set hard-to-reach expectations, our experts said.
“This time of year, there are lots of holiday ‘Hallmark’ movies on TV,” said Bohmler, a clinical therapist. “People see that closeness and want it for their own families. But maybe theirs has been disrupted by loss, divorce or other changes.”
“There is an expectation that everything is supposed to be wonderful and smooth,” Bohmler added. “But if you don’t have an intact family, have members gone from loss or the family is disrupted for some other reason, that is more difficult. It brings up feelings of doubt and worth.”
Signs of ‘naughty’ behavior
According to Pant and Bohmler, here are some signs that your child may be stressed:
- Getting into trouble more often.
- Withdrawing from activities.
- Pretending to be sick.
- Negative demeanor or attitude.
- Clinging to parents.
- Difficulty falling and staying asleep.
- Not being able to find joy in things they used to do.
- Overall sadness.
- Not wanting to follow rules or talking back.
A good place to start is with irritability. Compared with adults, children will show more of it rather than what might be called depression in adults, Bohmler said.
As they observe, parents should measure behaviors by intensity (on a 1-10 scale), frequency and duration. “If it is something in the extreme range, you certainly want to talk with them immediately,” said Pant.
Identifying stress and addressing it quickly can make a difference in how you and your child adapt to situations. Look for the signs above and talk with your child if you think they may be stressed.
To learn more about Harbor’s mental health services or to connect with one of their experts, please visit their website or call 419-475-4449.