According to the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of Americans say their stress levels increase during the holidays.
Reasons cited include concerns about finances, overcommitting time and energy, family issues and conflicts, and unmet expectations about “happiness and joy.”
“Now, factor in 2020,” said Leslie Dempsey, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with National TeleTherapy Resources. “Stress levels are expected to escalate even more than ‘normal’ this year.”
This is not only true for adults, but also for children who sense their parents’ increased stress. These children may channel this stress into their own behaviors.
Practice Self-Care This Year
During the holidays, adults may default to trying to make things as normal as possible, especially for children, Dempsey says. However, she counsels them to lean more toward self-care this holiday season rather than maintaining routine and tradition.
Take elaborate holiday meals, for example.
In many communities, socially distancing will remain the norm through the next several months. As a result, it may not be prudent to invite all the relatives (especially older family members and those with underlying conditions) to a large gathering.
Instead, plan something simple for the immediate family, and then celebrate with a Zoom toast later so everyone can visit for a bit.
Foregoing a family dinner, while disappointing, not only addresses potential contagion. It also reduces financial cost to the host family; the stress of cleaning, prepping and cooking in an already busy schedule; and the potential for family strife.
This is an example of self-care that adults can choose with relatively little effort.
Additional Needs of Children
However, a child experiencing increased stress may be acting out in extreme or unusual ways or by being unusually subdued. Some additional support and professional counseling may be appropriate, according to Dempsey.
She offers some quick insights into how counseling may be able to help:
First of all, does the child understand the emotions he/she is feeling and how they can manifest physically and emotionally?
For example, a child may not recognize that a heated flush to the face or a sense of pressure in the chest may be physical signs of mounting anger. They don’t understand there is only a brief moment between those internal warning signs to acting out in an external way like a temper tantrum.
“After building awareness, we work with the child on communicating about their feelings,” Dempsey said. “We break things down into parts.”
Such parts may include answer questions like, “What is he/she feeling?” Or, “Is there something in particular that triggers the emotion?”
“We set goals, create strategies, and plan how they will respond to a situation with more healthy behaviors rather than reacting in negative ways.” Dempsey added.
Being Proactive with the Needs of a Child
For example, imagine a child spending Thanksgiving with his dad for the first time after his parents separate.
Many emotions may be flooding his system: fear of the unknown routine; homesickness and separation anxiety; nervousness about being alone with Dad for days at a time; and worry about strange food, a strange bed, and a strange location.
It might feel like a waterfall of worry, unease, and stress filling his head, his chest, and his tummy.
Dad and child might suffer through the weekend, ignoring the tummy aches, the wet eyes and whining, and maybe even a meltdown, but some proactive counseling could make future visits easier for everyone.
“We would talk through with the child what it feels like to miss Mom and what would make it feel better,” Dempsey said. “We would plan for a phone call twice a day; packing a scarf that smells like her in the overnight bag; bringing a favorite pillow and blanket from home.”
“The goal,” she added, “is to satisfy the need to keep in touch with mom (within boundaries), while also creating opportunities for the child and Dad to connect and build new routines.”
Checking in after the holiday weekend is a chance to debrief on how the child felt during the weekend, how they handled their emotions, and review what worked in the plan and what could be changed for next time.
“In counseling, we find that — over time — the child has fewer tummy aches and outbursts,” Dempsey said. “They begin to communicate their feelings more readily, and proactively express what they need to feel better. It’s also a cycle that prepares the child for future changes.”
The first time meeting a divorced parent’s new girlfriend or boyfriend, Dempsey says, is an example of something that could bring all that anxiety and stress experienced during the separation and divorce back into play again.
Aspiring for More Awareness
Childhood counseling isn’t something to be afraid or ashamed of, Dempsey points out.
“We work with teenagers today that are much more self-aware and emotionally functional because they had counseling as a young child,” she said. “They are articulate about what they’re feeling and can express their needs more clearly and confidently.”
As a result of their more refined coping skills, Dempsey said many present more maturely than their peers.
“And, isn’t that kind of awareness and control something to aspire too?”