While a long school vacation might feel like a relief for many kids, the break in routine can trigger stress for kids with anxiety.
‘Tis the season for twinkling lights, sweet treats, cheerful singing, parties and plenty of time off. It’s no wonder people look forward to the winter holidays. Most people, anyway.
Year after year, anxious kids tell me that they don’t necessarily look forward to the hustle and bustle of the season. While a long school vacation might feel like a relief for many kids, the break in routine can trigger stress for kids with anxiety. The parties, singing and bright lights look great in pictures, but sensory overload can quickly set in for anxious kids. For kids who struggle with social anxiety, or even kids who are simply more introverted, the constant going and socializing can be very overwhelming.
Fear not, though, you don’t have to bubble wrap your anxious child and hide inside until January 2nd. With a few accommodations in place, you and your child can prepare for and enjoy the holiday season. Here’s what I’d suggest:
Keep a symptom tracker.
Anxiety presents in a variety of different ways, and it’s essential to know your child’s specific symptoms. For some kids, irritability, excessive tears, clinging to parents or isolating might be the red flag warnings that anxiety is spiking. Other kids might experience increased psychosomatic symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle aches, or other unexplained medical complaints (dizziness, rapid heart rate or a “lump” in the throat).
It’s always a good idea to keep a symptom tracker throughout the year so that you can help your child understand when his anxiety spikes and what might contribute to it. During the holiday season, it becomes particularly important to pay attention to the specific triggers as families tend to be busier and routines are disrupted.
Once you’ve established a few of the specific holiday triggers for your child, you can make an anxiety-reduction plan. This can include making minor adjustments to the schedule that work for your child, practicing specific coping skills to use during high-stress events, and increasing periods of downtime to recover.
Anxious kids tend to crave routines because routines help them know what to expect on any given day. The disruption in the usual daily routine coupled with an onslaught of parties, religious services and other social events can be overwhelming.
Be picky when it comes to taking your child to parties and other events. Be sure to balance busy, loud events with quiet days at home. It helps to review that symptom tracker and consider what kinds of events cause the most stress for your child. If large parties are overwhelming for your child, consider focusing on a few smaller events in familiar surroundings.
Do not force a child with social anxiety to enter a party and interact with other kids. It’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy the party from the sidelines.
Provide previews. Given that the break in routine can be stressful, providing a “preview” of upcoming events can help anxious kids make adjustments and be more flexible. Talk your child through events before you leave the house. By explaining where you’re going, who might be there, possible food and entertainment options, and about how long you will stay, your child has a chance to process and prepare.
It also helps to establish an exit time and stick to it to preserve sleep and make sure your child has time to unwind post-party.
Practice coping strategies.
It’s important for kids with anxiety to engage in daily practice of their coping skills. The more they use their strategies, the better able they are to access them when they feel increased stress and anxiety. Though the holiday season can be busy, be sure to carve out time for this, and remind your child to practice their coping skills.
The tricky part of anxiety is that it isn’t one-size-fits-all. Strategies that work for one child might not work for another. Encourage your child to try some of the following strategies to help your child build an effective coping kit:
— Use a worry box to put away anxious thoughts each night. Have your child decorate a small box and cut an opening at the top. Each night he can draw or write down the worries swirling around in his mind and put them in the box for safe keeping. This helps get the worries out his mind (by writing and verbalizing them) while giving him a visual of where the worries went. They can always be revisited later. — Keep a journal to vent anxious thoughts and record positive alternative thoughts.
— Use reframing to catch anxious thoughts and turn them into more positive and realistic thoughts. (For example, “I can’t go to this party because I have no friends there and no one will like me” becomes “I can stay close to my sibling/parent until I feel comfortable enough to join a group.”)
— Use progressive muscle relaxation to relax one muscle group at a time to relieve tension.
— Practice deep breathing by pretending to blow up a balloon (breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and then breathe out for four more seconds).
— Listen to relaxing music while using a stress ball.
— Try coloring, sketching or painting.
It also helps to create a coping kit to go. This might include a small journal, a stress ball, coloring sheet and a favorite soft stuffed animal.
Late nights and busy schedules can make it difficult to find enough time to focus on each child. Anxious kids need ample time to connect with their parents and recharge. Be sure to factor in time to slow down and connect with conversation, time spent together engaging in relaxing activities or just reading side-by-side each day.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule.
A sleep-deprived brain is an anxious brain. Even one late night can result in a major setback for a child who struggles with anxiety. Try your best to keep the sleep schedule consistent during the holiday season. If a late night is unavoidable due to family commitments or a religious service, be sure to plan plenty of downtime for the following day.
Don’t neglect nutrition.
It’s fun to indulge in sweets and extra desserts during the holiday season, but excess sugar and caffeine can trigger increased anxiety. Focus on healthy eating for meals and snacks to balance out the extra treats kids enjoy at parties and other events. Moderation is the key to helping your child make healthy choices.
The holidays can be a fun-filled and magical time for children (and their parents). By keeping kids’ anxiety in mind, you can help your children enjoy the season without feeling overwhelmed by their anxiety triggers.