We all know what stress is and what it feels like. Many of us, as adults, can recognize what triggers our stress level to increase (deadlines, financial struggles) and what we can do to cope with our stress and manage it effectively. Young children, however, typically lack the life experience and skill to understand their stress or what to do about it.
A child, under stress, can be aggressive or detached, can cry or demonstrate nervous fine motor habits like twirling his hair or biting his nails. Increases in toileting accidents, sleep disruption and headaches and stomachaches can also point to potential stress in a child’s life.
What causes stress in children certainly varies. New siblings, birthday parties, or getting a new pet can be as problematic as hectic routines, being bullied, and struggles in school. Family challenges like deployment, unemployment, divorce, or financial challenges also affect children…especially if their families fail to cope with their own stress in positive ways. The holidays, with changes to a child’s regular routine, new decorations and lights, and a bombardment of advertisements promising happiness with the latest toy can be overwhelming.
So what are we to do, especially at this busy hectic time?
- Help children anticipate stressful situations. Give them a heads up when schedules will change or when guests will come for visits.
- Help children talk about their feelings. Make sure you are communicating honestly, based on a child’s ability to understand, about struggles that you can’t avoid. Reassure them that they will be ok and that difficulties the family is facing are not their fault.
- Give them strategies about what to do when they feel anxious like using their words to ask for help, riding their bike, or taking a deep breath.
- Keep routines like meal time and sleep schedule as regular as you can. If you know you will be going to a family get together and foods might not be terribly kid-friendly, offer a snack before you leave or even bring some snacks with you.
- Be realistic about your own expectations for the holiday season. Many of us have had to modify previous gift-giving habits and event schedules. Develop new family traditions and times to spend together. Talk a walk through your neighborhood to look at lights in the evening or haul out the sleeping bags to “camp out” in the living room to watch a holiday classic together.
- Take care of yourself. People say this all the time but it is certainly true when it comes to stress and children. Children learn so much about stress management from you. So make sure you are well rested and have carved out some time to relax over the holidays as well.