Reducing Children’s Stress (and Yours!) During the Holidays

*Updated December 2022

It’s supposed to be a time of joyful excitement, but the truth is that the holiday season can be stressful for children and parents alike.

For parents, the commitments, responsibilities, and endless to-do lists can stretch us beyond our limits.  Kids also have their own triggers, eagerly anticipating celebrations, candy and presents. And the holiday hype they experience at school, in the community, and in the media (and social media) heighten their anticipation and, sometimes, anxiety.

Fortunately, a few proactive steps can ease this seasonal stress for parents and children alike:

  1. Make sure you and your child get enough sleep

It’s easy to forget the importance of adequate sleep, especially amid the excitement of the holidays. Sleep fuels everything from physical health to emotional resilience, and yet it’s the one thing that falls off our radar during the holiday frenzy. Prioritizing your own sleep will help you to be more available to your child and less vulnerable to stress. And adequate sleep will bolster your child’s internal resources, making him less vulnerable to meltdowns and feeling overwhelmed.

  1. Find 5-10 minutes a day to relax and play together

Play is a key nutrient to children’s mental health, and spontaneous play (following the child’s lead) is one of the most under-recognized stress busters. While the holiday season might just seem too packed to find the time for it, playing is among the best ways to help your child manage holiday stress. When you’re tempted to get one more present wrapped, it’s worth pausing instead and taking 10 minutes a day to play with your child.

When you do, pay close attention. Children’s concerns often appear in their play themes, providing a window into their minds. Janice’s parents, for example, recently separated. They found that she repeatedly played with stuffed animals who lived together under one roof. Observing this provoked them to adjust holiday plans and talk to her with compassion about how difficult it was when her dad moved into a nearby apartment.

The key is to relax and follow the child’s lead, allowing them to direct the play. Play helps us build joyful connections, find out what’s on the child’s mind, discover stressors, and work through a range of emotions.

  1. Maintain routines that are soothing to the child

Many children rely on daily schedules to help them feel grounded. During the holidays, we often have to adjust routines, but it’s worth maintaining the routines that bring stability to your family—particularly the routines your child enjoys. Routines help children feel grounded and secure, just as a cup of morning coffee or reading the news can help adults face the day. Children benefit when things such as dinner and bedtime rituals (such as reading a book together before bed) stay consistent during the holiday season.

4.  Don’t use the holidays as incentive for positive behaviors 

The holiday season is rife with gift giving and receiving. It’s tempting to use the holidays to create incentives for good behaviors and compliance. Unfortunately, this can easily backfire and make kids more anxious. Doing so leverages the high stakes of anticipation for desired goodies/events, and increases stress by making those stakes even higher. It also reinforces the idea that the holidays are about receiving gifts and not about connection with others.

5.  Reduce stress through acts of charity

The holidays provide another great way to reduce stress, by offering opportunities to give rather than receive. A study showed that giving to others promotes happiness and feelings of well-being. The season offers many occasions for children to experience the satisfaction of doing for others, including putting coins in the Salvation Army bucket, donating time to programs helping needy families, visiting a nursing home, or simply acknowledging something you are grateful for each day.

Opportunities abound to reduce stress during the holidays. The benefits of finding your own ways to create connection, coziness and relatedness during the holidays will last well beyond the season, strengthening your child’s mental health and emotional resilience throughout the new year and beyond.

I share more about how we build lifelong resilience in Brain-Body Parenting, under the resources tab on this site, and more personally in our Parenting Collective.

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