What do the holidays mean for you? Are they times you look forward to or are they times you dread? Are they full of warmth, love and family or are they lonely, dark and painful?
For some, the holidays bring excited anticipation of rich food, colorful décor, festive carols and family closeness. For many though, this time of year serves as a poignant reminder of loss, regret, stress, worry, business, grief and pain.
And the same is true for our children.
The “most wonderful time of the year” is also the most stressful. And stress is not always bad or negative–exciting and challenging situations cause an increase in adrenaline, a hormone that enhances the body’s ability to perform, think quickly, and get ready for action. However, ongoing stressors can also trigger the body’s fight-flight-or-freeze response, resulting in prolonged cortisol release (the body’s stress hormone). Indicators of this can include increased heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and body temperature as well as difficulty breathing or digesting food.
Children’s little bodies are prone to the same biological effects of cortisol and adrenaline as adults. Kids lack the ability to regulate both the good and bad stressors in their environment (like a parent that is inconsistently available or an overwhelming amount of extracurricular activities). Children also aren’t as verbally skilled in communicating what they are feeling. Very rarely will your preschooler approach you to say, “I am feeling really overwhelmed and tired today. I think I need to take a nap and have some protein for a snack instead of my holiday candy.” Instead their behaviors–short temper, crankiness, difficulty sleeping and disobeying rules they usually follow–tell us they are tired and overwhelmed.
The holidays also often bring the additional stress of change or disruption in normal schedules and routines, not to mention the increase of sugar and caffeine (chocolate, sodas, coffee drinks, etc) in their diets!
So whether our child is excited about or dreading the approaching holidays, there are things we can do to help them handle their emotions and behaviors:
Try to slow down the hyper speed of this time of year. Cross a few things off your list and limit your activities. Pick one or two or even three events you would like to attend, and don’t feel bad about the invitations you have to politely decline. That way you will have the time, energy, and emotional availability to prepare yourself and your child for fully anticipating and getting ready for the events you really want to attend. This will help your family fully enjoy and participate in what you do attend, and leaving on a good note, be able to return to the normal routines and rules at home without as much disruption.
You can make this time of year fun and memorable without doing EVERYTHING or totally disrupting your family’s normal routine.
As you slow down and attempt to enjoy some of the craziness of this holiday season, take time to regularly check in with your child. When your child is acting-out, that is often their frantic attempt to get your attention, to communicate something about their needs or desires.
So pay extra close attention to your child’s earlier signals before bigger disruptive behaviors occur: Are they clingy and needing more physical attention or affirmation? Are they lying awake at night and worrying about anything? Are they more irritable, more easily upset, more tearful than usual? Then don’t be afraid to point out and ask your child about those behaviors, and about what they think might be driving them.
Simple prompts work best, such as: “I’ve noticed you’ve been _______________ lately. What do you think that’s about?” You can feel free to venture a guess if your child really doesn’t know: “Maybe you’re feeling tired, overwhelmed, sad, disappointed, etc. because ______________ happened”.
Dan Siegel calls this technique “name it to tame it.” If you can help your child name their current emotion and attach a meaning or reason to it, that oftentimes fulfills the child’s need to be heard and understood and reduces (or even removes) the need for them to take more drastic modes of expression.
For some, the holidays bring a fresh dose of grief as they are re-reminded of the loss of a loved one. Grief for a child can manifest itself in crying spells, angry outbursts, clinginess, or isolating themselves and not wanting to play with others (to name just a few). One way to help ease the pain of old memories is to be intentional about creating new ones.
New memories can honor loved ones who are not able to be with the child and bring a sense of their continued presence into the current holiday atmosphere. New memories also bring the fun and joy back into the season, as your child is able to explore and create and imagine new things. Begin building new traditions that your family can revisit and add to each year, building the excitement and anticipation. New memories or traditions can include: reading special holiday books, attending events such as plays, Nutcracker ballets, nativity skits, Christmas Eve candlelight services at church, or lighting ceremonies downtown, baking special recipes together, listening to holiday music, even leaving cookies and milk for Santa!
Some ideas to help ease loss and grief include: creating a handmade gift for the special person your child lost, wrapping it and leaving it under the Christmas tree or outside; donating a gift to a local charitable organization in memory of your child’s loved one; making a Christmas tree ornament with the deceased loved one’s picture so that you can be reminded of and talk about him/her yearly; or send a chocolate ‘kiss’ (a ‘physical’ way to help process grief by unwrapping a chocolate Hershey kiss and allowing the candy to melt in a special place–graveside/memorial/garden, etc. This allows a child to feel that they are indeed sending kisses and love. It is also perfectly acceptable to eat the kisses, perhaps referring to the sweet taste as sweet kisses back).
Which brings us to the most important thing you can do with your child–play. Invest time in their world; meet them in their imaginative fantasies and engage their hearts and minds through eye-to-eye, hand-in-hand, crawling-on-your-knees-on-the-floor style participation.
What your little one (and your big ones) need most is your consistent love, concern, and attention to notice their strengths as well as their struggles and to be available emotionally, spiritually, and physically, no matter what is going on their world.
So make this a holiday season your child will always remember–not by the number of parties attended or the number of presents received–but by your attentive presence and gentle communication that calms them even in the chaos.