Family

Is holiday stress hurting your kids?

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Family

Is holiday stress hurting your kids?

A few days before last Christmas, at a gathering of mothers from my youngest son's senior kindergarten class, I asked for ideas on how to decrease our children's, and therefore our own, stress over the holidays. We came up with three creative suggestions: Gravol, duct tape and earplugs.

Holiday stress
The Christmas holidays are supposed to be a time of bliss for kids of all ages, but sometimes they can be anything but. "Christmas is a roller coaster of emotions for children," says Dee Leifso, a child and youth counsellor and family therapist in Stratford, Ont. But the roller coaster isn't limited to emotions, she adds.

Christmas opens the gates for social, physical and spiritual stressors, too. What's more, we may miss the signs that our kids are stressed, such as avoiding social interaction or complaining of stomachaches, say experts with the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Clinic at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

The good news is that when we identify and take steps to relieve holiday stress, we can all relax and savour the season. Here are some duct-tape-free solutions to alleviate your children's holiday stress.

• Social stress

What it looks like
Christmas is a whirlwind of parties, concerts, meals and visits with relatives. Stresses that arise from social situations are pervasive at this time of the year and affect children of all ages: toddlers miss regular play dates as schedules crowd up; school-aged kids are prepping for pageants and wondering if they've put the right things on their Santa lists; and teens agonize about time spent with family cutting into time spent with the budding love of their life.

"Many children are from broken homes and blended families, so there are far more relatives to visit over the holidays," says Leifso.

Other kids become stressed for the opposite reason. "They don't have family living close by, so they don't get to see their grandparents or aunts, uncles and cousins, and they feel extremely left out of the feeling of family during the holidays."

How you can help
• Just say no. There are some Christmas invitations you just have to turn down. If your kids are old enough, ask for their help in deciding which events to skip -- their responses may surprise you. "Nobody wants to hurt the feelings of others in declining their invitations, but we need to remember that our focus should be on the children," says Leifso.

• Look for ways to combine events. Instead of spending a fidgety evening at Aunt Jillian's, for example, bring her along to help the kids buy teacher gifts.

• Talk to your child about what events are planned and when they will have free time.

• Reschedule every nonessential appointment that can be tended to in January, such as going to the dentist.

• If too few relatives is a concern, alleviate the feeling of loneliness by inviting friends and neighbours over during the Christmas break.

Emotional stress


What it looks like
You need all your fingers to count the emotional stressors at Christmas: anticipation, desire, disappointment, joy, love, divided loyalties -– the list goes on. They all can lead to feelings of jealousy and resentment toward others, which culminates in guilt.

As well, kids feel frustrated at simply being out of control of the situation, says Leifso. They may also have a sense of inadequacy, such as being unable to afford a fancy gift for a best friend or boyfriend or knowing they won't get the expensive new gadget all their friends are asking for.

"The range of emotions results in a loss of self-control, and often outbursts of tears are the result," says Leifso. And don't forget the raw emotions that arise in children whose parents are divorced or separated as they try to please both parents.

How you can help
• Sit down and make a list of potential concerns your child may have, such as a party at school, and discuss coping strategies she can use, such as visualization to picture herself having fun or talking with certain friends.

• Well in advance of any situation that could invite an invitation to perform, such as Christmas dinner at Grandma's, sit down and ask your child if he really likes being in the spotlight. If he doesn't, let him off the hook. He should be able to enjoy family gatherings like everyone else.

• As for visitors who have a stellar track record for appearing late or being no-shows, Leifso suggests saying nothing to your child about the impending arrival. "Let the surprise happen on the day, so if something happens to change those plans, there is no disappointment and no unnecessary feelings of rejection are passed on to the child."

• If your plans involve travelling and sleeping away, bring along a favourite pillow for teens or blanket for children. Even a familiar toothpaste or water glass may help calm anxiety caused by unfamiliar territory.

For more on stress, kids and the holidays, keep reading.

Physical stress

What it looks like
Sam Graci, a nutritional lifestyle researcher in B.C.'s Gulf Islands, has made a career of studying teenagers and nutrition. "At Christmas, there's no routine," he says. "The family steps out and eats poorly, the shopping craze sets in for younger people with peer pressure and stressing over gifts, while a grab-and-feed mentality sets in and the body and mind become exhausted." Indeed, he says, the holidays can cause children and teens to experience nutritional deficiencies. And if a lack of vitamins and nutrients weren't enough, excitement leads to poor sleep, tummy troubles, acne flare-ups and headaches.

How you can help
• "Pay attention to your kids' basic nutrition," says Graci. Place healthy snacks, such as cut-up veggies, nuts, raisins and colourful fruit, right in the middle of the kitchen table. If you have to have chips, only serve baked ones, and hand out healthy protein bars.

• On the days when you can eat at home, serve healthy meals, says Leifso. "Family mealtime lets parents and kids connect."

• Drink lots of water; try sodium-free soda water with a little fruit juice concentrate instead of pop for kids.

• Fit in any physical activity you can, especially as a family.

• Introduce vitamins and supplements when diets are less nutritious than normal.

• Read a book to children at bedtime or offer soothing music to fall asleep, says Leifso.

• Teach teens to take a few minutes of their day to sit quietly and focus on their breathing to calm themselves down and refocus.

• A gentle back rub, touch or words of love from a parent go a long way to keep a child centred and stress-free.

Spiritual stress

What it looks like
"Spiritual stress happens when a child's belief system is challenged," says Leifso. "There are more religions and cultures in our society now than ever before. This challenges our kids to wonder what is right and wrong and what is truth."

As teens become more sensitive to religious intolerance, they may not understand how to celebrate within their own faith while still respecting other religious traditions.

Even adults stumble over whether "Happy Holidays" is more appropriate than "Merry Christmas." Also, if your family doesn't practise any formal religion, kids may be intrigued or confused by classmates who do celebrate a faith-based holiday.

How you can help
• Explain and explore the beliefs of others -- it's a good way to understand and accept differences.

• Check out bookstores and the library for books on multicultural holidays at this time of year and read about them together.

• Ask your friends from different ethnic or religious backgrounds for any special seasonal delicacies, then trade with some of yours and experience what other cultures eat.

• Balance giving with receiving. Include a charity or two as a component of your celebrations. For example, let your kids pick out the groceries that you'll put in the food bank's collection box, or have them go through toys they have enjoyed and pick out the best and drop them at a community centre.

5 on-the-spot stress-busters
1. Make time for one-on-one talks with older kids or play with younger ones.

2. Turn off the TV, computer, music and some lights, sit on the floor and help them clear their minds, then take deep breaths for a few minutes.

3. Teach kids how to use visualization (picturing themselves handling a situation well) and self-talk ("I know I can do it") to prep for stressful situations.

4. Enjoy an extended cuddle in bed with the whole family, including pets.

5. Take a giggle break: a gentle tickle, silly jokes and goofy looks.

Feeling stressed out this holiday season? Read 7 ways to reduce holiday stress.

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