The wrapping paper, decorations and carols have been in the stores for at least a month, and even if you love the holidays, the approach of the season can feel stressful. That’s also true for your kids.
“There’s just a lot of activity going on,” says Bhavana K. Arora, MD, chief medical officer of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Health Network. “There’s visiting family members, there’s shopping, there’s decorating, all these tasks that need to be done that throw off the routine for children, especially younger children. They’re attending multiple events, they’re not sleeping, they’re not eating right and it’s very challenging.”
Parents’ stress – whether from financial pressures, overscheduling or conflicts with family – can also filter through to the kids. Signs that a child is feeling holiday stress can include an unusual number of meltdowns, complaints of nonspecific headache or tummy ache, trouble sleeping and general irritability. “They’re just not having fun,” Arora says. “They’re not happy.”
Fortunately, there are things you can do to make your family’s holidays happier.
Set the tone ahead of time. Outsized expectations can mean big disappointments, so talk with your child before the holidays about how things will go. “Make sure you’re not focusing on the gifts, but on what you do as a family and how you give to others and your community,” Arora says. When you do talk about gifts, give your kids specific guidelines about the number of gifts they can expect to receive and/or the amount that will be spent. In Arora’s family, the adults don’t exchange gifts and the kids receive no more than two or three. The focus is on holiday festivities, rather than presents. “The theme is, just have fun and relax,” she says.
Support your child through holiday events. If you’re headed to an event that will present challenges, such as delayed mealtime, later bedtime than your child is comfortable with or lots of distant relatives who will want to hug them and pinch their cheeks, talk it through. Offer your child a pre-event snack, encourage them to nap and let them know that they can come to you if they need a break from the crowd. “Parents should really know their child and what their limits are,” Arora says. “Frequently check in with your child to see how they’re doing, rather than just expecting them to go with the flow.” If a gathering is especially difficult for your child, consider limiting the amount of time you will spend there.
Keep things balanced. “You don’t have to go to every event. Every day is a lot for a child,” says Arora. If your routine is thrown off for a day or two by holiday festivities, she recommends building in a day where your child gets some downtime with sleep and regular meals. You should also build in time for family fun. “For my family, the holidays are really about bonding and doing things together,” Arora says. “So, in between those crazy parties, our favorite thing with my daughters is watching Hallmark movies.” If that’s not your thing, consider some holiday baking or decorating, or other activities you enjoy.
Arora also reminds parents to manage their own holiday stress with an organized approach. “The biggest thing for me is planning ahead, not leaving it to the last three weeks and then going a little crazy, which filters into the whole family,” she says. Put the things you have to get done on a calendar so that you know how to get to the festive finish line.