For most children, the holidays are happy, fun and exciting times. There's a break from school and a chance to see friends and relatives. There may also be special food, music and family traditions. However, for some children, the holidays can also be stressful and confusing. Family plans and celebrations may be complicated by divorce, separation or remarriage. The holidays can also be a difficult time for children who have lost a parent, sibling or close relative. This year, many children are also separated from parents due to ongoing military service.
The holidays often remind children of what's changed and what's now different. For example, a child from a divorced family may feel sad on some level because he misses the "intact" family he used to have. A child whose parent is on active military duty may feel it's particularly unfair that her daddy or mommy needs to be away over the holidays.
There are a number of things parents can do to help children cope with holiday stress. These include:
- Discuss holiday plans well in advance, and let kids participate in decisions to the extent possible. Kids need some degree of predictability. Prolonged uncertainty, constantly changing plans or last-minute decisions can all increase stress.
- If you're traveling, leave plenty of extra time and bring child-friendly snacks, books, games and/or music.
- Don't overschedule. You may not be able to do everything or see everyone. Kids can easily get "burned out," overtired and cranky during the holidays.
- Give kids some "downtime." Don't expect them to be "on" all the time. Leave room for some quiet activities, like listening to music, walking in the woods or reading a book.
- Make sure kids get plenty of sleep. While it may be exciting to stay up late, lack of sleep often leads to increased irritability.
- Let kids be honest about their feelings. Don't force them to act happy and excited if they're feeling quiet or down.
- Don't promise things you can't produce. For example, don't promise that a parent will be home in time for the holidays if the decision is really out of your control. Don't promise that someone will call if they're in an area with limited phone service.
- Uphold and maintain family traditions even if a parent is absent. Kids count on certain traditions, which can have an important grounding effect by letting kids know that even though some things have changed, other things have remained the same.
- Don't try and compensate for an absent parent with extra gifts or toys. It won't work. What most kids really want is time, attention and reassurance.
- Take care of yourself. Try and avoid getting overloaded with obligations. If you feel stressed, it increases the pressure and tension on your children.
Most kids, even those dealing with loss or family transitions, can and do enjoy the holidays. However, preparation, patience and honesty can help prevent conflict, reduce stress and enhance the holiday season for the whole family.
Dr. Fassler is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Burlington, Vt. He is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy for the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families.