Managing stress and expectations during the holiday season
With the COVID-19 vaccine now authorized for children under the age of 12, this holiday season might resemble more normalcy for families than last year. Families may feel more comfortable traveling to see loved ones, hosting celebrations and continuing festive traditions.
However, the holidays, while joyous, may be a time of increased stress for both adults and children navigating this return to normal because hectic schedules and increased expectations can be overwhelming.
Carmen Holley, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health consultant for Lurie Children's Center for Childhood Resilience, explains: "For all of the joy the holidays bring for many of us, there is also an increased level of demand and expectations to meet. Adults can often put extra pressure on themselves during the holiday season. Planning family gatherings, holiday meal planning and preparation, working extra shifts to earn extra money, the stress of finding the perfect gift -- the list goes on!"
Holley points out children can pick up on this stress adults feel during the holidays, which in turn can make them feel stressed. "The additional stress folks may feel about COVID-19, and how and if we can be in-person with loved ones, brings additional concern for both adults and children," Holley says.
One way both parents and children can help alleviate stress during the holidays is to manage expectations. "Talking to children and teenagers is one of the most important things we as parents and caregivers can do to manage expectations. During these conversations, we can ask our children and teens what is important to them, what they are looking forward to, and what they are nervous or worried about. These open-ended but specific questions can provide lots of information parents and caregivers can use to provide support," Holley says.
Support might involve validating your child's thoughts and feelings, so they know you hear them. Being present in the moment and actively listening so you can in return provide them with guidance will go a long way. Holley also suggests involving children and teens in decisions. "Involving your child or teen in the choices you make as a family during the holiday season is a great way to make them feel heard and help them feel in control."
To help manage a parent or caregiver's own expectations, Holley recommends they acknowledge feelings, be realistic and effectively communicate. Acknowledge all thoughts and feelings. Don't dismiss feelings and accept the feelings without judgment.
"The holidays can be full of joy, but also sadness, so giving ourselves permission to experience all of the emotions that may come with the holiday season is crucial. As a mental health provider, I want to briefly mention that folks should reach out for help if sad or anxious feelings are overwhelming them," Holley adds.
Be realistic about what we can and cannot do. There can be a lot of pressure on parents and caregivers to make this holiday season bigger and better than the last. "In some cases, we put that pressure on ourselves!" Holley says. "There might be a tendency to work more, do more, spend more. To make sure we don't fall into that cycle, we have to be realistic and honest, and communicate with the people in our lives about our own bandwidth and capacity. Simply put, we need to remember the holidays are for us to enjoy as well, rather than working hard to create joy for everyone else."
Lastly, Holley reminds everyone to have self-compassion, be kind to yourself and one another and remember you aren't alone. Practicing mindfulness can increase one's ability to engage in self-care and minimize stress. Set boundaries and communicate those boundaries to those around you to help ensure a happy holiday season for you and your loved ones.
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. For more information, visit www.LurieChildrens.org.