How to Avoid Overwhelming Your Children Over the Holidays

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We all know that the holiday season can be a hectic and stressful time. However, what many might not realize is that it can be equally stressful for your little ones! Children can get easily overwhelmed and overstimulated with all the travel, noise, and social interaction that the holidays may bring. It’s important to be able to recognize the signs that your child might be feeling stressed. 

Things to look for may be increased irritability or anger, inability to fall asleep or overexhaustion, eating irregularities, isolation and/or refusal to participate in activities, clinginess or even displays of regressive behaviour like bedwetting or thumbsucking. 

This article details ways to reduce holiday stress in children to ensure that your little ones enjoy the most wonderful time of year with everyone else!  

Remain Calm

Above all else, make sure that you remain calm. If you are stressed or upset your child will recognize this and there isn’t a way to stop your children from being affected by it. Be compassionate and try to make an effort to understand what the underlying reason for your child's stress is. Losing your composure can set a negative example which can also lead to heightened stress.

There are a number of different methods that you can employ when you speak to a stressed child to help you diffuse the situation and ensure that you don’t lose your own temper: 

  • If you notice your child is anxious, encourage conversation during moments when they naturally talk more like bedtime, at dinner, or in the car. 

  • Initiate a conversation with them by sharing things that have been on your mind rather than starting off with a question. Lead with your feelings of holiday stress and give them the opportunity to say “me too.” 

  • When you talk, make sure to practice active listening. Listen to their point of view and let them complete their thoughts before you respond. 

  • Repeat what you have heard to assure them you understand exactly what they are saying. 

It’s also important to realize that your child may be only telling you a small portion of what is actually bothering them. Listen carefully and encourage them to talk and they may open up more, especially if you are empathetic and avoid offering solutions early in the discussion. Once you have heard them out completely, it is pivotal to respond thoughtfully. Focus on your child's feelings instead of your own. If there is a disagreement, express your opinion without dismissing theirs. Acknowledge that disagreement can be healthy sometimes. It’s important to soften any strong reactions. Kids will tune out if you appear angry, defensive or judgemental so staying calm and open minded is key.

Set Reasonable Boundaries 

Children are extremely resilient but stress and anxiety are real challenges, especially during the craziness of the holidays. It is important to set reasonable expectations for kids to help to set them up for successful behavior. 

  • Behavior Expectations: Before you bring your kiddos into a new social situation, sit them down and explain the social etiquette that is expected of them. Going to see the Nutcracker in a theater? Explain that when the lights go down, it’s time to be quiet and watch the show. Attending a holiday party at someone else’s house? Let them know that they should use “indoor voices”, not run around, and don’t break anything. It may seem like a small thing, but how will kids know proper behavior if no one tells them. 

  • Set a Time Frame: If kids know they will be somewhere for two hours instead of an indefinite time frame they may be much more relaxed and able to stick it out. Additionally, it’s important to provide a length of time you actually intend to keep. If the deadline is up and your child asks to go, telling them “soon” will only serve to make them anxious and stressed. If you prepare them, you should also be prepared to stick to the time frame as well.

  • Limit New People: One of the things that can be overwhelming to kids is lots of new people. Plan activities in smaller groups, when possible.  If you are the one hosting the event it may be a good idea to ask potential attendees to RSVP to a digital invitation so that you will know how many people you will attend (you can control the size of your guest list). This is a great way to prepare your children for the amount of people they can expect and to help them know who they will be interacting with.

Prepare Them

It’s important to keep your children in the loop and not spring too many surprises on them like last-minute holiday activities or long family drives. Here are some tips to help set expectations so your child has time to digest and prepare for what’s ahead: 

  • Daily Schedule: A good way to prepare your child is to set out a clear and concise daily schedule outlining the day’s plans so it is very clear when and what is happening. Older children will be able to read the times on a written schedule, but younger children might enjoy a picture schedule depicting the order they will be asked to do certain things.

  • Stick to a Routine: Families often stick to a regular routine during the school year. Just because it’s holiday break, doesn’t mean it’s time to break from routine -- though the routine can be different for the holidays. Kids do best when routines are predictable, so if you change things up and do something out of the ordinary in the morning, it’s best to keep the afternoon/evening routine the same. This can put kids at ease and keep stress at bay.

  • Bring Activities: It’s not a guarantee that everywhere you go will be entertaining for your kids. It’s always good to have a few activities handy that your kids can use to 1) stay occupied, 2) decrease their stress level. Examples are a book (for older kids), puzzles, coloring books, and building blocks.

Find Outlets for Their Energy

As most parents already know, children can be little balls of energy! Sitting still and staying quiet for a long period of time can prove quite the challenge and be one of the most frustrating things about gatherings for children. So, you need to help them find an outlet for that energy! 

First off, if you are going somewhere where your children will be required to sit quietly, it’s always a good idea to plan an activity for earlier in the day that will give them time to burn off that excess energy. Let them go outside and play, bring them to the park, or go on a walk or bike ride together. A healthy amount of exercise is also known to be a great deterrent to stress! 

If wearing them out beforehand doesn’t help and they are still fidgeting in their seats, exercise their brain instead! Activities like a brain teaser puzzle, a rubix cube, or puzzle box can be equally draining. If you can’t keep their bodies active keeping their brain engaged can be the next best thing!

Learn to Say “No” to Friends and Relatives

Everyone at one time or another has come to the realization that sometimes the best thing to do is just turn down invitations to holiday events. Again, there is just only so much a child can handle before they become overwhelmed. Limiting activities will not only reduce their stress but will likely make everyone’s holiday more enjoyable in general. If you feel bad about saying no or still want to do something to show you care, consider sending a holiday ecard rather than going in person.

In cases where you intend to go to a number of gatherings, but have concerns about creating more stress for the child, consider leaving the child at home. You and your spouse can take turns going out while the other watches the children. Or ask a family friend or hire a sitter.  If you do hire a sitter we suggest using someone the children already know.  Introducing someone new in a crazy time like this may cause even more stress.

Plan Rest Breaks

Holidays can be exhausting. You know how tired you can get during the season so just imagine how the chaos might be affecting your kids. A great way to manage this is to plan age-appropriate rest breaks at specific times. Make sure that all your children are aware of when these scheduled breaks are and to let them know there is little flexibility on that front. 

There are a lot of easy ways to help your child relax and be comfortable while away from home such as: 

  • Find a quiet room: Letting your child breathe and collect themselves away from the noise can be a great way to help them take a break. 

  • Water breaks: You should also consider taking regular water breaks. Hydration is important, especially when on the move. 

  • Listen to music: Something else that you might consider is bringing along a pair of headphones and loading up some relaxing sounds or music that you can let them listen to when it is time to take a break. 

These types of breaks can help calm kids down and help them to return to a relaxed state, especially if they may have been previously too excited.

Make Sure They Feel Comfortable Confiding in You

Sometimes venting can be a healthy outlet for stress, so it is important that your child knows that they can come to you for support. If you see your child upset or acting noticeably out of the ordinary, ask them about how they are feeling. Make this a routine even when they are acting like their regular selves. If talking about their feelings to you is a part of their everyday routine already then when it really counts for them to open up and to explain to you how they are feeling and why they are feeling that way they won’t be nervous or reserved when doing so. Having an open line of communication like this with your child can drastically help to address stress or anxiety that they may be feeling, especially during the craziness of the holiday season. 

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