Do the holidays consume you with joy, merrily moving along, or do you find yourself rushing, pressed for time, anxious about getting it all done? Whichever way it unfolds for you, as we busily bustle through the holidays, it is important to remember that kids are doing the same thing right along with you, perhaps even to levels that create a sense of internal chaos and emotionality that they are unaccustomed to dealing with. This is especially true for those with sensitive natures or already existing anxieties.
While the list is long, here are some of the more common factors affecting a child’s holiday experience, along with some ways to help rebalance their energy to something more that feels much more manageable, and fun.
1) Energy Intensity: Consider how exhausted we often feel after the holidays are over. The year -end holidays are prolonged, daily doses of anticipation, excitement, impatience and both positive and negative stress. Because there is a natural increase in energy levels not only within the family home but in the greater community, kids experience this on multiple levels and may not have a chance to decompress.
- De-Stress Steps: Build in calming moments, but also be present with your child to teach them how to settle down. It is not enough to say, “Go calm down”; rather, we must provide them with tools to do so. A quick Yoga exercise, breathing deeply together with counting breaths, guided imagery meditation, or progressive relaxation are all outstanding tools to help kids learn to notice their bodies and teach them how to de-activate the stress response.
2) “Go Kiss Your Aunt” syndrome: Kids may struggle with family visits with many people at once, as well as those they haven’t seen in a very long time. They may feel forced or obligated to be cordial and even be asked to freely provide hugs and kisses to those whom they essentially see as strangers.
- De-Stress Steps: Honor a child’s right to decide with whom, when, and how they will interact. Understand that they are not being mean-spirited or rude if they opt out of one-on-one contact with someone they are not fully accustomed to. Give them room to get to know a new person on their own terms, and remember that they do not hold the same experiences with the relative that you do. Theirs are brand new, and uniquely their own. Removing the pressure of encouraging them to respond to unfamiliar relatives based on your own relationship with the person will soften the transition period for everyone.
3) Grief Renewal: Holidays often are reminders of those who are now absent from us. Particularly for children, they may be more susceptible to unexpected anniversary states and triggering events around this time. Family members struggling with the loss may also be emotionally unavailable to assist in the way children need. Often, the anticipation of the holiday may be worse than the day itself.
- De-Stress Steps – Normalize and validate the “differentness” of the holiday. Create special ways to handle the magnified memories and feelings during this time by establishing new rituals in the person’s memory. This is a healthy form of grief expression. Talk honestly and openly about what traditions may change. Allow tears and sadness to be expressed.
4) Attunement: This is a very common dynamic. Kids are usually quite attuned, impacted and influenced by what is happening in their homes, and this also applies to holiday energy. When parents are stressed, kids become stressed. What can be more difficult is that they are not always able to identify or articulate the source of their unsettledness. They will, however, act it out!
- De-Stress Steps – Give kids a chance to discharge this energy by making space for them to acknowledge it and feel supported, externalize any worries prompted by magical thinking, and also find activities suiting their individual natures to expend excess stress (painting, outdoor play, indoor gyms, etc.).
5) Separated Families: Families who are facing divorce, custody difficulties, or even military separations all have unique stressors around the holiday season. Struggles with parental loyalty and decisions made about where a child will spend certain holidays are noticed and internalized.
Worries about the safety of a family member and acutely feeling their absence are also highly activating for a young emotional coping system. They are especially vulnerable to feelings of fear, loneliness, and uncertainty.
- De-Stress Steps – In the case of divorce or separation, the golden rule is to remain neutral and as amicable as possible. Also, involve children as much as reasonably possible in having a voice with where they would like to spend each holiday. It is important for them to feel as if they have a sense of control over this special time. In the cases of military deployments, one step is to encourage children to keep a journal, take pictures, and make a scrapbook or other documentation of the holiday to share with their loved one upon their return. Increase connection times and reassurances, and attempt other means of communication as much as possible (email, letters, video calls).
6) Routine Changes: The holidays present us with everyday moments that, while exciting and enjoyable, are still changes in the familiar structure of everyday life. The changes aren’t so routine, and in fact can disrupt a child’s sense of stability. From late nights, new outings and experiences, to extended bedtimes and travel, a child’s senses are highly stimulated and eventually fire uncontrollably. This is often when parents will see an escalation in behaviors that can be interpreted as rude, ungrateful, aggressive or oppositional.
- De-Stress Steps – Keep in mind that seemingly uncontrollable behavior is often a child’s way of letting you know, “I can’t handle anymore. This is great, and I love it, but it is too much.” Try to stay away from packing the day with an abundance of activities, no matter how fun they may seem. Set thresholds for the number of errands in a day, the number of holiday visits and experiences, and the number of people to whom a child is exposed in a short time period. Know your child’s limits. Also, remember that some children are naturally introverted, which means they will be recharged by time alone. It is perfectly acceptable to invite a child to go play quietly alone and undisturbed in a room during a family visit, and nearly guaranteed that they will return to the gathering renewed and ready to re-engage.
In all the holiday rush to make things perfect, we know that “perfection” for kids is more about feeling safe, joyful, and settled. Try to move through each day with more of what I call “Meaning Moments” , than “Movement Moments.” Movement Moments are those necessary but often overabundant times when you are still together with your young one, but they are characterized by moving from place to place, getting things done, and focused more on the activity than the connection. Meaning Moments are those when genuine, face-to-face connections are made, with eye contact and physical affection, even for 10 second bursts. Infusing holiday time with more of those will provide reassurance, affirmation, connection, visibility and stability for their over-stimulated spirits. It will rebalance the stressful energy with a calming sensory experience which is sure to make a difference for the entire family. May you all be blessed on your holiday path this season with the gifts of tranquility, unrushed happiness, and many, many Meaning Moments.
© Copyright 2011 by Cherie L. Spehar, LCSW, CTC-S, RPT-S, therapist in Apex, North Carolina. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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