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Dealing with Holiday Stress in the Weirdest Holiday Season Ever

-Dr. Ann L. Contrucci, M.D., FAAP

Family spending time together at the holiday season

With the seeming endlessness of the pandemic, “COVID fatigue” IS real and IS not going away anytime soon. To salvage this crazy year and a holiday season that likely looks like no other, here are a few tips that will hopefully be helpful to keep some “Merry” and joy in the holiday season!

Remember that kids of all ages handle stress in different ways. Here’s a rundown of basic developmental issues in kids of different ages and how stress may show up and how to help:

Kids 5 and under : No visits to Santa, no preschool holiday parties, possibly not seeing extended family will be very disappointing for this age group. They cannot fully comprehend the “why” of the pandemic but they can comprehend that they don’t get to do “fun stuff” because of it. And they can feel adults’ stress and anxiety. Kids are smarter than most people give them credit for!

Changes in behavior such as decreased sleep, increased “clingy” behaviors, “whining”, or meltdowns may occur. New regressive behaviors such as bedwetting or thumbsucking can be a sign of anxiety in this age. Sadness in young children often shows up differently than in older kids – younger kids are not able to articulate as well that they miss seeing Grandma and Grandpa or going to a Christmas parade or festival and will manifest more “meltdowns” or whining type behaviors.

School age kids: Socializing with peers becomes increasingly important in this age so there is likely to be much sadness and disappointment around not being able to have school holiday parties or giving gifts to teachers or friends due to virtual school, for instance.

In this age group, children are more able to voice emotions like sadness, disappointment, anger in ways that are more constructive than acting out. They may have difficulty sleeping or even sleep too much. They may not want to engage in anything but video games or stay in their rooms all the time, without connecting face to face with family or friends. They may become more defiant or aggressive in speech or even physically if they cannot articulate their emotions.

Teenagers: As we all know, adolescence is a time of pulling away from parents as they begin the process of self actualization. However, excessive withdrawal from family and friends could be a red flag for parents that the holidays are making them anxious or depressed. Teenagers may be more likely to rebel due to “pandemic fatigue” and attend large gatherings or parties due to “FOMO,” or refuse to wear masks while in public.

What do I do as a parent, you may ask?

For the younger kids, consistency is always key – in everything from bedtime routines to mealtimes to daily exercise. Young children especially thrive on structure and routine. Giving them extra reassurance with a simple hug and reminding them they are safe goes a long way. Discuss things like wearing masks and washing hands as a way to be a “helper” to other people. Simple mindful exercises like deep breathing and “kid yoga” can be taught even to very young children and can diffuse anxiety in the moment.

For the school age kids, have regular conversations about how they are feeling with not being able to do “x, y, z”. Open ended questions are always best since they can spark more conversation and lead to the heart of how kids are feeling. Consistency with meals, sleep, and exercise are also important. Limiting screen time as much as possible is not easy but necessary as screens have been shown to increase anxiety in developing brains. Make new family traditions such as reading a different holiday book nightly or picking the “top 5 or top 10” best Christmas movies to watch. Bake cookies together. Learn about traditions from other cultures.

For teens, open-ended non-judgmental questions are best to ask such as how he or she is feeling about the holidays being different than pre-pandemic. Really listening to your teen and acknowledging that “this sucks” will often go a long way towards them being more likely to accept support from you. Remember, you can’t “fix” this for them but you can validate their anxiety, sadness, frustrations. Validation of their feelings goes a long way.

For parents, remember how important self care is for you! You can’t run on empty…even if you are a superhero! Take time have a coffee or glass of wine and just breathe, go for a hike or walk, listen to holiday music. Establ