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Granite State Rumblings: Helping Children Deal With Stress Of The Holidays

With the 2015 holiday season upon us, it’s important to take some time to prepare for the hustle and bustle that comes with this time of year.

Everyone knows the holidays can be stressful for adults, but that stress is often compounded for children. For most children the holidays are happy, fun and exciting. There’s a break from school, and a chance to see friends and relatives. There may be special food, music and family traditions.

However, for some children, the holidays can be stressful and confusing. Family plans and celebrations may be complicated by divorce, separation or remarriage. The holidays can be a difficult time for children who have lost a parent, sibling or close relative.

The holidays often remind children of what has changed in their lives. For example, a child from a divorced family may feel sad on some level because he misses the “intact” family he used to have. A child whose parent is on active military duty may feel it’s unfair that her father or mother needs to be away over the holidays.

Others may just find it particularly difficult to deal with the changes that occur during this time of year. But recognizing the fact that holiday festivities can lead to stressful reactions is an important step to taking action to avoid major meltdowns.

So to help parents deal with this time of year, here’s a top 10 list of things to do to help your child weather the holiday season:

  • Try to maintain a typical routine. Having a routine and sticking to it is very important for children. It helps them to feel secure and know what to expect. With holiday festivities it may not always be possible, but keeping your children on their typical schedule as much as possible will make it easier for them to adjust. If you’re traveling, leave plenty of extra time and bring snacks, books, games and/or music.
  • Get plenty of rest. Making sure that your children get plenty of sleep is key to helping them deal with stress. Doing your best to maintain the same sleeping patterns is also very helpful. Whenever possible, try to have your children go to bed at their typical bedtime and wake at their regular time. While it may be exciting to stay up late, lack of sleep often leads to increased irritability.
  • Plan healthy meals and snacks. The holidays can often be filled with many opportunities for young ones (and adults) to eat lots of candy and desserts. While it may not be possible to completely eliminate sweets during the holidays, it can be helpful to set a limit. Make sure to plan some healthy snacks as well to help balance things out. Good nutrition can have a major impact on whether your children are feeling their best.
  • Choose holiday functions and parties carefully. Don’t over schedule. You may not be able to do everything or see everyone. Kids can easily get “burned out,” overtired and cranky during the holidays.
  • Having too many parties to attend can add to the stress of the holiday season. You do not have to attend every event. When choosing which invitations to accept and which to respectfully decline, keep your child’s interests in mind. If your child has difficulty adjusting to new situations or doesn’t like large crowds, you may want to skip events that will be in unfamiliar places.
  • Don’t put your children on the spot. It’s natural to want to brag about your children, but forcing them to sing for Aunt Rose or tell a story about themselves to Uncle Jim can make them overly anxious. Don’t insist they perform for relatives. This can often lead to feelings of embarrassment.
  • Keep children informed of plans. Avoid surprising your children when there’s going to be a change in the routine. If you’re planning to attend a holiday event or have a hectic day full of holiday errands, let your children know in advance so they aren’t caught off guard. Some surprises are expected during the holidays, but for things that don’t have to be a surprise, let them know in enough time so they can be prepared as well.
  • Let the kids participate in decisions. Children need some degree of predictability. Prolonged uncertainty, constantly changing plans or last-minute decisions can all increase stress.
  • Incorporate quiet time as needed. Give kids some “down time.” Don’t expect them to be “on” all the time. If there is a particular day that is exceptionally full of holiday obligations, try to make time for your child to unwind. Set time aside so that your child can take a nap or play quietly without a lot of overstimulation. Ask your child what helps to make them feel better and try to incorporate these types of activities during stressful times. Leave room for some quiet activities, like listening to music, taking a walk or reading a book.
  • Avoid stressful situations. Going to the mall to do holiday shopping can be stressful for adults. That stress level is compounded for children. If possible, don’t put your children in such stressful situations. If you plan to go to the mall for some holiday shopping, see if there’s a way you can have someone watch the children. Whether that’s a family member, trusted friend or neighbor, you’ll be doing yourself and your child a favor.
  • Maintain your own stress level. Children will follow your lead when it comes to the way they react to a situation. As soon as you start to feel stressed, your children will pick up on it and become more stressed as well. Do what you need to keep your own anxiety level in check and your children will follow suit.
  • Keep with traditions. Holidays are meant to be times to share with family and friends. If you have family traditions that your children enjoy, be sure to keep them intact this year, even if a parent is absent. This will lead to a greater sense of belonging to the family and help to keep things grounded by letting them know that even though some things have changed, other things have remained the same.

Most kids, even those dealing with loss or family transitions, can and do enjoy the holidays. However, preparation, patience and honesty can help prevent conflict, reduce stress and enhance the holiday season for the whole family.

Happy Holidays!

~Source –  American Psychiatric Association ~


The Impact of Early Adversity on Children’s Development

What happens in early childhood can matter for a lifetime. To successfully manage our society’s future, we must recognize problems and address them before they get worse. In early childhood, research on the biology of stress shows how major adversity, such as extreme poverty, abuse, or neglect can weaken developing brain architecture and permanently set the body’s stress response system on high alert. Science also shows that providing stable, responsive, nurturing relationships in the earliest years of life can prevent or even reverse the damaging effects of early life stress, with lifelong benefits for learning, behavior, and health.

  1. Early experiences influence the developing brain.
    From the prenatal period through the first years of life, the brain undergoes its most rapid development, and early experiences determine whether its architecture is sturdy or fragile. During early sensitive periods of development, the brain’s circuitry is most open to the influence of external experiences, for better or for worse. During these sensitive periods, healthy emotional and cognitive development is shaped by responsive, dependable interaction with adults, while chronic or extreme adversity can interrupt normal brain development. For example, children who were placed shortly after birth into orphanages with conditions of severe neglect show dramatically decreased brain activity compared to children who were never institutionalized.
  2. Chronic stress can be toxic to developing brains.
    Learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development. When we are threatened, our bodies activate a variety of physiological responses, including increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones such as cortisol. When a young child is protected by supportive relationships with adults, he learns to cope with everyday challenges and his stress response system returns to baseline. Scientists call this positive stress. Tolerable stress occurs when more serious difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury, are buffered by caring adults who help the child adapt, which mitigates the potentially damaging effects of abnormal levels of stress hormones. When strong, frequent, or prolonged adverse experiences such as extreme poverty or repeated abuse are experienced without adult support, stress becomes toxic, as excessive cortisol disrupts developing brain circuits.
  3. Significant early adversity can lead to lifelong problems.
    Toxic stress experienced early in life and common precipitants of toxic stress—such as poverty, abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse or mental illness, and exposure to violence—can have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health. The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems. Adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, and diabetes.
  4. Early intervention can prevent the consequences of early adversity.
    Research shows that later interventions are likely to be less successful—and in some cases are ineffective. For example, when the same children who experienced extreme neglect were placed in responsive foster care families before age two, their IQs increased more substantially and their brain activity and attachment relationships were more likely to become normal than if they were placed after the age of two. While there is no “magic age” for intervention, it is clear that, in most cases, intervening as early as possible is significantly more effective than waiting.
  5. Stable, caring relationships are essential for healthy development.
    Children develop in an environment of relationships that begin in the home and include extended family members, early care and education providers, and members of the community. Studies show that toddlers who have secure, trusting relationships with parents or non-parent caregivers experience minimal stress hormone activation when frightened by a strange event, and those who have insecure relationships experience a significant activation of the stress response system. Numerous scientific studies support these conclusions: providing supportive, responsive relationships as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress.
  6. Policy Implications
  • The basic principles of neuroscience indicate that providing supportive and positive conditions for early childhood development is more effective and less costly than attempting to address the consequences of early adversity later. Policies and programs that identify and support children and families who are most at risk for experiencing toxic stress as early as possible will reduce or avoid the need for more costly and less effective remediation and support programs down the road.
  • From pregnancy through early childhood, all of the environments in which children live and learn, and the quality of their relationships with adults and caregivers, have a significant impact on their cognitive, emotional, and social development. A wide range of policies, including those directed toward early care and education, child protective services, adult mental health, family economic supports, and many other areas, can promote the safe, supportive environments and stable, caring relationships that children need.

~ Source – Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Impact of Early Adversity on Child Development (InBrief). Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu. ~

Featured image: My Christmas Tree (Brillianthues FLIKR CC)



About MaryLou Beaver

New Hampshire Campaign Director Every Child Matters Education Fund
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