Let’s be honest. We all want the holidays to be happy—perfect, even—for everyone, especially our children. We expend enormous amounts of energy, time, and emotion trying to meet all the seasonal demands: baking, cleaning, shopping, attending parties, over-extending our calendars and our financial resources.
“The expectations that we place upon ourselves and our families can often lead to increased feelings of stress and depression,” said James Mitchell, a licensed therapist at Family Services who specializes in relationship stress and communication issues, grief and loss, anxiety and depression, issues from childhood, and adjusting to life changes.
“Cultural messaging leads us to believe that we must meet certain expectations in order to be happy or help others around us to be happy,” he observed.
Lisha Méjan agreed. As a Family Services licensed therapist who works with individuals also experiencing mood disorders, trauma, difficulty adjusting to divorce, adoption, or life challenges, Lisha sees how holiday stress can affect children.
“We’re busy people anyway,” said Lisha. “Then, we add to the normal demands of work, parenting, and relationship layers within holiday demands that disrupt children’s routines or prevent us from recognizing signs that our children are struggling.”
As with adults, children can exhibit feelings of stress as irritability, anger, or sadness. But children also respond to stress in ways that might be interpreted as “a stage.”
“Little ones are whinier, antsy, or have frequent meltdowns. Older children may act up at school, regress to younger behaviors like bedwetting, or withdraw from friends and family,” Lisha explained.
Prepare for stress
To help children during the stressful holiday season, James and Lisha suggested preparing for it with some practical tips that can minimize stress and help children enjoy the holidays even more.
- Maintain Routines. This is especially important for parents of young children who are often dragged along on shopping trips and to special events. Maintaining bed times, and providing time for rest and play is critical in reducing stress in children.
- Be realistic.Traditions can provide a sense of security and comfort for children. But it’s also okay to change traditions or rituals of the past in order to create new ones that better reflect changing family dynamics or long-distance relationships.
- Consider Nutrition. Busy schedules can lead to meals-on-the-run from the fast food drive-through, and holiday gatherings are filled with sugary treats. At least once a week, plan time for healthy eating and opportunities to be together as a family.
- Keep it simple. Children do not equate lavish gifts and parties with happiness. Often the simplest plans are the most memorable.
- Check in. Sometimes children need parents to ask how things are going. This can be particularly important when a child has experienced trauma, such as loss or separation. They are not sure how to bring up what they are feeling. Asking gives them permission to talk about a difficult subject.
- Build in time to de-stress.Schedule time for everyone to take a breather. Technology time-outs, outdoor play, and quiet times for talking create opportunities for children and their parents to discover feelings below the surface.
- Acknowledge your feelings.It’s normal for adults to feel sadness when missing loved ones, grieving over a loss, a divorce, or a disappointment. Express your feelings in loving ways. You don’t have to force yourself to be happy, just because it’s the holiday season, but talking about it with your children can reduce their feelings of uncertainty.
It can be difficult for a parent to tell whether a child is just going through a temporary “stage” or is suffering from anxiety or depression. Family Services’ highly qualified, professional therapists provide effective services for a wide range of life concerns and challenges in a confidential, respectful and collaborative environment.
“Meeting and talking with a therapist who will listen can help children open up. Together, with the parents, they can work on strategies so the child can cope with challenging situations” added James.
“Even children need help from time to time. We’re here to help them and their parents build on individual strengths to improve overall well-being and the quality of life,” Lisha explained.
Family Services therapists have master’s degrees in social work, counseling, and/or marriage and family therapy and are licensed in the state of North Carolina. They accept Medicaid and many private insurance plans, and offer services on a sliding scale fee to individuals and families who live or work in Forsyth County. Fees range from $11 to $120, based on household income and size of your family. Call 336.722.8173 to set up an appointment, or visit www.familyservicesforsyth.org to meet the Family Services therapists.