Overcoming Holiday Stress

It’s the most wonderful time of the year …” or so Andy Williams croons in the beloved holiday song. Starting just after Halloween, mothers everywhere start preparing for the holiday season: making phone calls to relatives near and far, planning get-togethers and family time, arranging trips to grandparents’ homes, shopping, cooking, decorating, entertaining and more shopping. There isn’t a minute to spare! Whether attending grown-up soirees or classroom holiday parties, everyone is in a celebratory mood and ready for action. But there is one thing that can put a damper on the holiday fun: stress. From the moment the turkey and dressing are placed in the oven on Thanksgiving Day until the last glass of champagne has been drunk on New Year’s Eve, our lives are in overdrive as we strive to cram in every last ounce of fun and celebration we can muster. Is it any wonder we feel a little stressed out? And mothers aren’t the only ones. Many children find it difficult to deal with the stress of the holiday season.

You may think, “Are you kidding? But I’m the one doing all the work!” Don’t fool yourselves, Mom. The majority of the work may fall on your shoulders, but children feel the stress just as much if not more than we do, and not all kids are equipped to handle it. I remember the Christmas my oldest son turned 3 years old. We were so excited for Christmas that year! It was the first time we could really introduce the tradition of Santa Claus bringing gifts to all the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve. We read stories about Santa, decorated the Christmas tree, hung our stockings by the fireplace and wrote a letter to Santa asking for three special gifts that he wanted. As most parents do, we reminded him constantly to be a good boy so Santa would come to our house with gifts.

But as Christmas grew near, we noticed changes in our son’s behavior. He cried more easily, threw temper tantrums, became easily frustrated with his brother and acted out in ways we had never seen before. Thinking to motivate him, we continued to talk about Santa, encouraging him to be on his best behavior. (Sound familiar, Moms?) We attributed much of his acting out to being “overtired.” After all, we were busy with holiday activities that often interfered with naps and his normal bedtime routine. Despite our encouragement, things did not improve. Aside from the changes in his behavior, we also noticed our son blinking a lot. I didn’t think much of it at first, but as the weeks wore on, the blinking became more pronounced and severe. His upper lip would curl with each blink, his nose would scrunch up, and he would squeeze his eyes closed over and over again. He seemed completely unaware of what he was doing.

I will never forget watching him at the service on Christmas Eve as he sat listening to the pastor tell the story of Jesus’ birth, his little face contorting awkwardly with each rapid blink. Tears streamed down my face, and my mind raced with fear. Was it a brain tumor? Some rare neurological disease? On Christmas Day, we started making calls. Within a week, we had him in to see the best pediatric neurologist Houston had to offer. After a thorough neurological evaluation, we were informed that our son did not have a brain tumor or any other fatal disease. He had developed a tic (which is hereditary and runs in my family) most likely caused by the stress of the holiday season. I assured the doctor that we had done nothing to cause our son stress. But the more we talked, the more I realized that all of the things I considered fun aspects of Christmas and the holidays — stories of Santa coming down the chimney and sneaking in to deliver presents, staying up late, going to parties with large crowds of people — were basically stressing him out. His body was simply reacting to the added anxiety. We were sent home with a clean bill of health.

As the holiday season drew to a close, the temper tantrums disappeared, the tic vanished, and all returned to normal in the Burkholder house. And I had learned a valuable lesson. Every child may not develop a tic, as my son did, but many children are greatly affected by the stress associated with the holiday season. So, should you bypass holiday decorating, gift exchanges and visits to grandparents altogether? Absolutely not! But there are many ways to minimize the stress of the holidays to ensure that your child enjoys this special time of year to its fullest.

Maintain a routine: Most children thrive on a schedule. They take comfort in knowing what their day will entail, who will be caring for them, when they will nap, even what they will eat throughout the day. It isn’t uncommon for routines to fall by the wayside during the holidays, so try to respect your child’s need for consistency. Allowing them to eat their favorite dinner, in their high chair, at their normal time before heading out to a party will ensure that their tummies are full and that their routine has not been completely disrupted. Also, preparing them in advance for what the day will hold can prevent last-minute meltdowns when Mickey Mouse time is interrupted. Don’t overwhelm young children with stories that may be disturbing. Admit it, Moms. Stories of a stranger sneaking down the chimney to leave gifts — but only for the good kids — can be a little disconcerting and add stress on a kid who may be far from perfect. You know your children. Be sensitive to their individual personalities.
Get plenty of sleep. It’s a busy time of year, so make sure your children are getting plenty of rest. A well-rested child will handle the busy holiday schedule much better than one who is running on a half a tank.

Don’t over-schedule. Of course, you want your child to participate in all the fun holiday festivities. But if it’s too much for your child, pick and choose the activities that he or she really wants to attend and will enjoy. I know grandparents love to show off their grandkids at all the parties, but keep your child’s well-being first and foremost in your mind.

Recognize the signs of anxiety. The signs that your child may be feeling stressed are not always as obvious as developing a tic. Watch for the subtle signs that can indicate anxiety: complaints of stomachaches or headaches, mysterious muscle soreness, unfounded worrying, change in sleep patterns, trouble transitioning between activities or any general regression (i.e., toilet training or thumb sucking).

By recognizing and respecting your child’s needs, you can minimize stress and make this holiday season the best yet!

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