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Published On: Mon, Nov 26th, 2012

Holiday Stress and Children

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– by Rebecca Kovin, PhD (Dr. Bee)

It is hard to believe a calendar year has almost completely rolled through its cycle, and we are now smack-dab in the middle of holiday preparation. For children, this is an exciting time of anticipation: anticipation of presents, anticipation of family gatherings, and anticipation of the great unknown. For children, this can also be a tense time of stress: stress regarding lack, stress regarding comparisons, and stress regarding family pressures. Like most things, it is usually not one or the other, but a smattering of both. The important thing to remember is that the holiday season inherently has exciting and stressful components associated with it.

For children, holiday stress can be especially difficult, as they do not have the capabilities to regulate stress to the same degree and capacity as adults (not that we are that great at it, but we at least have tried and true solutions at our disposal). In other words, the tools adults use to alleviate, manage, or dispel stress are not mature in children, and therefore are not options. Thus children are more susceptible. Let’s look at what stress is, what its manifestations may be, and I’ll provide recommendations to help you help your children (and yourself) make the most of the holiday season.

What is stress? As adults, we talk about it all of the time. “I feel stressed.” “The stress is getting to me.” “I’m not functioning properly because I am under too much stress.” Add your own version. The point is, stress is a ubiquitous term that is truly a one-size-fits-all experience for most folks. No one is immune to it, no one escapes from it, no one can ignore it, and no one can ‘ostrich’ through it (i.e., stick your head in the sand; pretend it doesn’t exist). What differs though is how we react to it and handle it.

When entering the word “stress” in the EBSCO Host database, it returns 1,290,268 results. What that tells me is that the word stress is not a particularly useful term in a scientific sense (i.e., it requires additional modifiers), and, it is big business. It also tells me that its conceptualization is dependent upon myriad factors, the primary of which centers on the person reporting the experience—it is wholly subjective.

Hans Selye coined the term in 1936, and defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” It quickly found its way into everyday vernacular, bypassing Selye’s original definition, and was applied to everything and anything that had a negative valence. (It should be noted that there is such a thing as positive stress, like when one is riding on a roller coaster for example, but that is not the type of stress I am referring to for the purposes of this article.) One physician stated in the British Medical Journal (1951) that, “Stress in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.” At the end of Selye’s career, when asked to define stress again, he said, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.” This speaks to the point that stress is different for each of us. That said, the common thread involved is the sense of having little or no control and there being a physical response to that sense.

Modern-day stress is primarily psychological, as opposed to a response, based upon a physical threat (more common centuries-and-beyond ago). This is an important distinction, as physical changes that occur within the body were originally designed to deal with physical challenges (e.g., blood is mobilized from the gut, to the extremities to provide more fighting strength, or speed to flee from danger).

Today, the nature of stress has changed, but our physical responses to it have not. When our stress responses are aroused repeatedly, they can contribute to a host of problems such as strokes, ulcers, hypertension, heart attacks, etc. In sum, our fight or flight response is connected to stress, and involves significant and predictable bodily changes (e.g., pupils dilate, breathing quickens, digestion slows, blood pressure increases, muscles tense up, heart rate increases, blood vessels in the skin constrict, and saliva flow decreases).

Thus, the management of stress is important. When people say, “Stress kills,” they are unfortunately not wrong.

With regards to children and stress, it is important to note that true medical problems must be ruled out first. You don’t want to ignore a real physical issue that is occurring. Once you have ascertained that stress is the likely explanation for your children’s complaints, keep the following in mind: children are not well-equipped to minimize or convert stress. (It can be difficult for adults under the best of circumstances!)

Children are often unable to communicate what it is that is bothering them, so instead, they use the language of concrete, physical manifestations. Tummy aches, generalized ailments, and other vague physical issues—this is the language used to communicate stress. If they are unable to pinpoint a region, this is often a tell-tale sign that the issue is stress-related.

Ask yourself this: Are you feeling an increase in stress during the holiday season? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you can be certain your children are likely to feel it too.

In past articles I have stated that children are inherently sensitive beings. They are aware of environmental changes, even subtle ones. Just like you can catch a cold, stress is contagious as well. Now, this is tricky territory, for it is not my intention to blame anyone for feeling more stressed, nor am I assessing fault. I merely want to point out that how we feel, impacts what our children perceive and, subsequently, how they feel. The best thing to do is to maintain a positive outlook, take care of yourself, and redirect worry into something productive and fun. It doesn’t have to cost a lot (if anything!) to maximize good cheer in your day.

There are four things I consistently do every holiday season to address the issue of stress my son might be feeling, whether it stems from the change in his routine or to my increased levels of stress. I invite you to try them and see how they make a difference for you and your family. You may be surprised as to how easy they are to implement, and what a difference they make.

1) Minimize your children’s exposure to shopping and stores. This is hugely important. Not only are stores fertile spaces for everyone else’s stresses to co-mingle and grow into a flailing, infectious beast, but the air is often heavy with feelings of obligation, worry, and guilt. As most children are in tune with their environments, this type of setting can be a recipe for disaster. Additionally, children see this frenzy of conspicuous consumption, and they can begin to associate ‘things’ with happiness. Not only is this not healthy, but in the long run, it can set the foundation for misguided materialism, which usually leads to a gaping hole of hungry emptiness. I am not suggesting that you forgo gift-giving. I am not a Grinch! I am suggesting that you avoid places that are likely to do your children more harm than good, and in my professional opinion, shopping establishments are not the place to take children during the holidays if it can be avoided.

2) Introduce the idea of giving back: Every year, my son undoubtedly receives more than he needs during the holiday; toys, clothes, you name it. There is too much stuff! Because children, especially young ones, are ego-centric by nature, they need to be taught that generosity is important. The best way to assist in the integration of this point is to begin an age-appropriate dialogue early. There are two things we do as a family that teach our son about giving to others.

First, we create a gift basket to donate to kids in need. This needn’t be extravagant or costly. Often times you can find things in your home. We paint pictures, make cards, string macaroni necklaces, and include some of his toys from last year in addition to some new ones. When all is said and done, he has created a beautiful assortment of items that he made, gave, or picked out, which is helping him understand the importance of helping others who have less.

The second thing we do after the holidays is have our son select a couple of his gifts to donate to another child (and not only clothes!). You don’t want the giving to be akin to pulling teeth; giving should be done with joy and good will—if it is not, resentment will build, and that defeats the purpose. Start small, and build from there. If you think it is going to be a battle, lead by example—select one of your gifts to donate, and involve your children in the process of your giving. I’d be willing to bet they will want to add to the giving pile. The bottom line is, if your heart is in the right place, and you want to teach your children the value of giving to others, you can’t do it wrong. You just need to do it!

3) Let your children help with holiday preparation: Do you have family coming, and you need to give your space a scrub-down? Enlist your children with age-appropriate tasks (no harsh chemicals, please!). Crank up some music, dance while you dust, sing while you scrub, and before you know it, you will have created a fun experience while minimizing the chore aspect—in other words, reducing the obligation part that is “Resentment’s” hiding place. Do you need to cook a holiday meal? Involve your children. They want to help! Yes, you can probably be more efficient without them ‘assisting’, but where is the holiday cheer in ‘efficiency’?

Remember, this is about decreasing everyone’s stress level. Let your children share their magic with you! It can be a blast (if you let it), and you will create positive memories that are far more valuable than any ‘thing’ they receive, no matter how prettily it is wrapped. Give yourself permission to goof-off with your children. Give yourself permission to let things get messy. Give yourself permission to forgo perfect. Celebrate, love, and revel with those you adore; even the mundane can be accomplished together, and with a smile.

4) Sit down with your children and create a, “This is what I am grateful for” list: Talk about a great way to wrap up the year! It also is a perspective-giver, par excellence. You are stressed about this and that— money, debt, health, job, lack of; there is a litany of items. But what are you grateful for? My, ‘This is what I am grateful for’ list never ceases to put me in a genuine and humble place of gratitude and thanks. Roof over my head and a place to sleep? Check. Food in the refrigerator? Check. Spare change in my pocket? Check. Electricity and heat? Check. This makes me richer than 75% of the rest of the world-that deserves acknowledgement. Please, create this list with your children. You make one for you, you help them make one for them. Hang it in a prominent place and dwell on it as a reminder when you are feeling down, or stressed, or wronged, or unhappy. It will help. The book Alphabet Living talks about

Gratitude this way:

Gratitude is thankfulness—complete appreciation.

Gratitude is honoring with graceful exclamation!

It’s conscious praise for blessings that have touched your life somehow.

Gratitude acknowledges the richness of right Now.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Hey, wait a minute . . . : )

There is a fifth thing that I can’t say I consistently do, but I try. I recommend you do the same.

5. Don’t forget the basics: Are you getting enough sleep? Have you fit in some rest and relaxation? Are you taking care of yourself? Is there enough unscheduled time? Are you being mindful about excess? Is exercise finding its way into your day? Have you spent some time in the fresh air? These are all questions that when answered favorably, minimize stress. This goes for your children as well. Keep it fun, don’t prolong uncertainty, encourage physical activity, create new traditions (and let go of those that no longer serve you), and don’t forget to BREATHE!

There is a perpetuating story that the holidays are stressful. It has become part of our narrative. It has become, in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It does not have to be that way!

Remove the pressure to get it right (whatever ‘getting it right’ means), don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses (trust me, the Joneses are not a happy bunch), do your best (your children are paying attention; they notice these things), and love a lot. This is a happy holiday. This is stress-repellent. This is the beautiful and messy thing we call living. And living is not about things. It is about people.

Look, there is nothing wrong with having things. There is nothing wrong with wanting to provide your children with great gifts. But if you lose sight of what they really want, which is your time and presence, then things will only be pale stand-ins for what really matters in life: authentic connection with others. And stand-ins will never replace the real deal. This time of year reminds me of a Neil Young song called Falling From Above. It is from his little-heard of, masterful musical called Greendale (2003). The line that always prompts my reflection is uttered by the character, Grandpa: “ . . . When I was young people wore what they had on . . .”

Think about that!

Now, go hug your children and make it a great day!





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