All is NOT calm in my household this holiday season, and I’d venture to guess the same is true of yours. More treats, later nights, holiday traditions … plus navigating the challenges of seeing family and seasonal events in the midst of a pandemic.
While the holidays are certainly full of fun, meaningful and magical moments, they’re also stressful — and not just for adults. Kids can be prone to more challenging behaviors, meltdowns, stress and anxiety, too. Throw in a pandemic and it COULD be a recipe for disaster, but it doesn’t have to be. We asked registered behavior therapist Jeanae Neal for her top tips in helping mitigate kids’ holiday stressors, creating a calmer household for the whole family.
Focus on quality, not quantity. Holidays can cause a sensory overload with all of the sounds, lights, sweets and events. Try not to dump all of this on your child in one day but instead choose your favorite traditions, spaced out throughout the season. Parents often get caught up in the excitement or expectation of wanting their kids to experience every possible holiday event or memory-making experience. But what kids will remember most are happy times spent with those they love. Ensure your child is getting enough rest and nutritious foods, and try to keep their schedules as close to normal as possible.
Know your child’s limits. We know our children best and can often predict when behaviors may happen or what might trigger a behavior. Some children need a lot of downtime or opportunities to recharge, so building those into the family routine is important. Most children thrive in a predictable schedule, and when that is thrown out of whack, challenging behaviors can follow. While we can’t control all the triggering events that may occur, anticipating them and trying to limit them can be a tremendous help to lowering kids’ holiday stress.
Create proactive strategies. The next step after anticipating those triggers is to think through proactive interventions to help reduce the occurrences of behaviors. If a family event extends past your child’s bedtime, take pajamas for the car ride home or make a plan to leave early. If your teen will have to miss a holiday happening with friends due to a family obligation, discuss when and how they could get together with friends at another time. If you feel obligated to bake cookies with your kids but the activity sets your teeth on edge because you know there will be more sprinkles on the floor than the cookies, choose a different activity you all enjoy or commit to a messy floor that everyone will help clean up afterward.
Create a culture of consent. Never force a child to hug, play with or be around anyone they are not comfortable with. The holidays are often a time when families see relatives or friends they haven’t been around for a while, and the unfamiliarity and expectations to engage or hug can be very stressful for kids. We especially don’t want children to feel as though they do not have control of their bodies and instead want to promote that it is their right with whom they interact. In terms of greetings or goodbyes, talk to kids about what they are comfortable with, whether that’s hugging, fist bumping or waving, and be their advocate if relatives request an interaction they aren’t comfortable with.
Expect the unexpected. Assess your expectations of holiday traditions or events and try to ensure those expectations are realistic. Meltdowns are likely to occur during the season, for kids of all ages, and they aren’t the end of the world. Think about how you’ll react when your child throws a tantrum or lashes out. Give grace to your kids and yourself.
Jeanae Neal, MA, RBT, grew up in Edmond, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in sociology from the University of Central Oklahoma and recently earned a master’s of psychology with an emphasis in Applied Behavioral Analysis. Neal has worked as a Registered Behavior Therapist for the past three years and is currently working from home while enjoying time with her 4-month-old baby girl and husband.
Editor’s note: This column is the sixth in a year-long series on family mental wellness, written by local experts on topics pertinent to parents and children. Columnists include Neal, Dr. Erica Faulconer, pediatrician at Northwest Pediatrics and mom of three; Thai-An Truong, LPC, LADC, in private practice as a postpartum therapist and mom of two; Stacey Johnson, LPC, (@staceyjohnsonlife) in private practice at The Purple Couch and mom of eight; and Dr. Lisa Marotta, a psychologist, writer, speaker and mom in private practice in Edmond.