Helping Children with Holiday Anxiety

  • The holiday season is an especially busy time of year for those who have committed to family dinners, school and neighborhood parties, gift exchanges, and travel plans. Schedules packed with events and activities often leave little time for relaxation, leaving both adults and children at risk for increased stress and anxiety. Left unchecked, this can interfere with travel plans, create family tension, and prevent family members from fully participating in what should be joyful celebrations  


    Anxious Children

    Children are particularly vulnerable to stress during the holiday season. They have their own anxieties and they easily pick up those of their parents. Crowded stores, family meals that provoke emotional issues, parties with lots of strangers, and extensive travel can all add to children’s stress levels. To help your child reduce holiday anxiety and be better prepared to cope with the curveballs that inevitably get thrown, try some of the following tips:

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    •  Plan ahead. Anticipate potentially stressful situations by making sure your child knows what to expect and how to best cope with people or situations that make her uncomfortable. For example, if your child tells you she’s nervous about seeing Uncle Henry because he always asks her too many questions about school, help her come up with a plan that gives her the tools to let him know politely that she doesn’t want to talk about school and to initiate a more comfortable conversation. Practice face-saving reactions to disappointing, unwanted, or embarrassing gifts, as well as stress-management techniques such as slow, deep breathing for when your child feels overwhelmed. Children who are uncomfortable being hugged should be reassured that they don’t have to hug everyone. Show them how to extend their hand quickly to initiate a less threatening type of embrace.
    • Set a holiday schedule and display it where the entire family can see it. Include details for each event, such as who will attend and whether travel is involved. This will give children a sense of what to expect and how to plan ahead, both of which can help ease anxiety. You may also want to schedule family time at home, letting the children select a relaxing activity to do together—playing a board game, watching a favorite holiday video, or making cookies.
    • Create a secret signal between you and your child. He can use the signal to let you know when he needs help without alerting others nearby.
    • Take care of yourself. Because children pick up the anxiety of those around them, make sure you and the entire family take steps to help minimize stress. Take time out for relaxation, even if it’s only a 15-minute walk. Make an effort to eat balanced meals, exercise, drink plenty of nonalcoholic liquids, and keep alcohol to a minimum.


    Missing Family

    Celebrating during the holidays can be difficult if family members have experienced the loss of a loved one, particularly through death, divorce, or military deployment overseas. Here’s some advice to get through difficult times:


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    • Keep family traditions, or start new ones. It’s OK, even important, to celebrate without the missing relative. Continuing family traditions creates a sense of normalcy. You may want to propose adding a new tradition, where each family member shares a favorite thought about the relative, or where your children create a video message to send via e-mail as long as the missing person is able to receive it. It’s also OK to acknowledge how much a person is missed and to encourage family members and friends to express how they feel about their loss. 
    • Avoid isolation. If you don’t have extended family nearby, make plans with friends or other families. Host a potluck dinner or a $10-gift swap, or volunteer together at a hospital, soup kitchen, nursing home, or animal shelter.
    • Talk to someone. Share your feelings, and encourage your children to do the same. You may also consider talking to a professional, who can help you and your children sort out emotions and best prepare for the upcoming holiday season. Find a therapist in your area through the website for the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA).

    PLEASE NOTE: The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) does not endorse or promote any specific medications or treatments.

Published On: December 10, 2008