December 19, 2016

Helping Kids Manage the Anxiety and Stress of the Holidays

The holidays can be a time of fun and lots of festivities. But what people often underestimate is how stressful they can be for both adults and kids. Winter break, traveling to see family, late nights with friends can all take their toll.

But, Dr. Marcia Slattery, UW Health child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the UW Anxiety Disorders Program explains that what's really at the root of the stress is that we lose our daily routine.

"The consistency that we have every day in our sleeping, our eating and our activities — these are the different things that keep us grounded. And kids are especially vulnerable to the loss," she explains.

Without the daily structure of school, for example, it suddenly becomes a question of — what are we going to do now and how are we going to organize our day?

With all of the travel and merry making, we're building in a lot of stimulation, a lot of new people and places that are unfamiliar. This can generate a lot more stress and anxiety as kids try to figure out what to do and how to put everything into perspective. And thinking about a basic schedule and basic routine can go a long way.

"The key is for parents to be prospectively active in thinking about how they are going into the holidays to make them go as smoothly as possible so everyone in the family can enjoy them all the more," comments Slattery.

According to Slattery, one of the most important things is to make sure kids are getting enough sleep.

"This is one of the most important things to pay attention to," she notes, and one of the more challenging. Kids don't want to go to bed, they want to stay up later and be a part of the activities. But once kids experience a lack of sleep, many will start to exhibit a lot more negative behaviors, anxiety, and irritability that may catch parents off guard.

"The whole house becomes much more stressed as a result," says Slattery.

Perhaps the second most important piece, according to Slattery, is to create a basic routine for winter break. That doesn't mean every hour has to be scheduled, but a basic framework for what will happen in the morning, the afternoon, when lunchtime is, etc. Essentially, it helps kids to have an idea of what the day will bring.

"Writing the schedule down whether on paper or a whiteboard and putting it somewhere very easy to see, like on the front of the refrigerator, can be incredibly anchoring for kids," Slattery says.

Another important element is physical exercise. Slattery explains that physical exercise is a great way to decrease stress, and weather permitting it's important to get kids outside and playing. When they are inside, make sure the activities are varied.

"The risk is once they're inside they're glued to screens. Be sure to set limits on screen time, and have a variety of activities kids can do," comments Slattery.

She says being proactive can help limit the "I'm bore" moments and keep everyone a little more relaxed. Like the daily schedule, consider working together with your kids to make a list of activities they can do when they're home. When the "I'm bore" moments hit, you can point to the list where kids can be reminded of the different activity choices they have. Like the schedule for the day, place the list somewhere visible so kids will easily be reminded of things they can do.

Make it a goal to have protected time each day for just the family to do things together that are fun, and relaxing; "Make time to find things to laugh about and enjoy together, whether you're at home, or traveling," says Slattery.

If traveling is in your plans, have your kids take familiar things with them that they like to do, and that make them feel like they're at home.  The holidays can be overstimulating for everyone; preserve time to "relax, unwind, and recharge" each day.

Finally, parents should monitor their own stress. "If parents are stressed, you can be sure kids will pick up on it and become stressed too," she says.

Plan ahead for shopping, baking, wrapping gifts, etc. to avoid having all of it to do at once. Enjoy things in the moment instead of over focusing on how it "should be".

"We often get caught up in idealizing what we think the holidays should be, like we see in the greeting cards, commercials, and Hallmark shows; be realistic and enjoy the moments as they happen instead of how you think they should be," advises Slattery. Focus on the positives, things to be grateful for, and emphasize the sharing.