We know the added stress that the holidays can place on parents. But this magical time of the year can also cause stress and anxiety in our children. To learn why and how we can help, we sought guidance from Thomas Foley, M.D., a psychiatrist with CHI St. Joseph Children’s Health Behavioral Health Center, which serves Lancaster County.
Central Penn Parent: Why are the holidays especially stressful for kids?
Dr. Foley: The multiple changes in routine that take place from late November through early January can take an emotional toll on children and their families. It is helpful to remember that the stress parents and caregivers are under during the holiday season also has a significant impact on family routines and stress levels within the home.
CPP: How young have you seen patients exhibiting holiday-related stress and anxiety?
Dr. Foley: Emotional stress and anxiety is a human experience and can be seen at any age. I think it’s important to remember that children are products of their environment and are significantly influenced by the homes in which they are raised. At the CHI St. Joseph Children’s Health Behavioral Health Center, we believe in the philosophy that all health is directly influenced by emotional and behavioral health. Furthermore, we feel that children are embedded within a family context and therefore their emotional health can best be influenced by focusing on overall family wellness.
CPP: Is there one age group that is more at risk than others?
Dr. Foley: In my experience, children and adolescents who have a history of being emotionally sensitive and/or struggling with changes in routine tend to be the most at risk of being affected by the stressors of the holiday season.
CPP: How can parents recognize that their child is stressed or anxious? Do the signs vary depending upon age?
Dr. Foley: Signals could include changes in behavior, eating patterns, and/or sleep routines. Symptoms vary dramatically depending on the age of the person. For example, children with depression often present with physical complaints such as headaches and bellyaches and often have a withdrawn and sad appearance. Older children or adolescents are more likely to show signs of irritability and teenagers may also present with significant mood swings. These mood swings can be so severe and sporadic that they can be confusing for parents.
CPP: What are some simple steps that a parent can take to help minimize the seasonal stress for their child?
Dr. Foley: In order to help kids directly, it is important to try to keep family routines as consistent as possible during the busy holiday period. Maintain typical sleep and mealtime schedules to the best of your ability. This can be a challenge during this busy time of year but being mindful of these daily routines will put you in a better position to ward off potential unnecessary stressors.
It is extremely important for parents to focus on taking care of themselves both mentally and physically during the holiday season. We know that children and adolescents are affected by the emotional health of their parents and caregivers. Here are a few tips for parents to focus on for their own mental health during holiday season:
1. Keep It Simple. Try to set aside time without any planned activities for yourself and for other family members to allow for emotional downtime. Allow time for yourself to enjoy and remember the smaller but yet important experiences of the holiday season with your family.
2. Gifting. Try not to feel pressure to overspend on gifts. Consider making one or two gifts and allow your children to be part of that experience. Very often, handmade gifts are the most treasured. This experience will teach your children important lessons in addition to quality family time. Science has shown that there are multiple neurologic and health-promoting benefits of “giving versus receiving.”
3. Be mindful. Truly embrace the many experiences of the season. Learn to pause and pay attention to what is happening in the moment, focus your attention on one thing at a time, and attempt to notice how you are feeling in that moment while withholding immediate judgment regarding your thoughts and feelings.
4. Remember your role. Your behavior and stress management in addition to the traditions you create will be the foundation on which your children base their own future holiday traditions.
CPP: When should parents be concerned that the symptoms they’re seeing in their child are more serious than seasonal stress and anxiety?
Dr. Foley: Signs of emotional distress for children that exceed a typical stress reaction would include significant changes in behavior such as mood swings, increases in irritability, changes in sleep patterns, changes in appetite, losses of interest in fun activities, withdrawn or isolative behaviors, or self-injurious behavior.
CPP: When should a parent seek professional guidance?
Dr. Foley: If a parent or caregiver is concerned about any of the above mentioned symptoms and feel that these symptoms are severe in frequency or intensity, prolonged, or interfering with the child’s ability to function at home, with friends, or at school, consider having a conversation with the child’s primary care provider to discuss the matter further.