Although holiday time means presents and no school for most American kids, it can also be a stressful time—particularly in families facing financial challenges, in split or blended families, and in families where a loved one has recently passed away.
One of the first steps for parents is to realize how much stress kids are under – much of it related to the economy and school. The American Psychological Association's recent Stress in America survey found that while 45 percent of teens and 26 percent of tweens said they were under more stress this year, less than a third of parents even noticed their kids' increased worry.
And their worry is affecting the quality of their lives: 42 percent of teens and 30 percent of tweens report headaches; 49 percent of teens and 39 percent of tweens cite difficulty sleeping; 39 percent of teens and 27 percent of tweens say they eat too much or too little.
Here are 7 simple holiday stress-reducing strategies that can make a difference.
Visualize a heart-filled holiday. You can do this one at the dinner table. Have everyone in the family close their eyes, focus on their heart, and imagine what kind of holiday will bring joy into their heart. Then share your ideas around the table. This helps kids feel listened to, cared for, and included.
Give the gift of calmness. Ancient wisdom and modern research point to the calming effects and health benefits of slow, deep breathing. Make a regular practice of taking 1 to 5 minutes each day of relaxing “balloon breathing.” Breathe in to a count of 3 about 2 inches below the navel, imagining there’s a balloon filling up with air, and out to that same slow count. It’ll center and rebalance every family member to face the joys and inevitable disappointments of the holiday season.
Offer distress a voice. If this is your child's the first holiday without a loved one--grandpa passed away, or big sister is in Afghanistan--younger family members may feel a deep sense of loss. Or maybe your child is feeling the stress of a recent divorce. Give her paper and markers, and ask her to draw whatever is making her sad or mad. Then ask her what the picture wants to say out loud. Often, putting a face on an emotion and letting it "speak" makes the child feel better--and gives the parent a way to understand what's going on.
Sweat is sweet. Kids (and adults) can get all pent up during holiday time. Surprise little ones by clearing the furniture out of the center of the room, turning on some fun music, and dancing vigorously for 10 minutes. Or bundle up the family and take a wintry walk while playing "I Spy." Exercise releases feel-good chemicals and is one of the fastest ways to chase away holiday blahs and instill a sense of togetherness.
Blow out negativity, light up hope. Create a family ritual of hope. Have two candles for each family member: one lit, one not. Have each imagine what they'd like to let go of -- what no longer serves them -- and say, "I'm going to toss this out (anger, worry, meanness to my sister) when I blow this candle out." Then light a new candle and share, "I hope to bring in (kindness, faith, cleaning my room) as I light anew." Let go of the old and bring in the new. You can use one candle to symbolize all, or light up your whole home with several.
Be grateful for who you live with. Avoid some of the little and big jealousies that crop up from comparing who has a bigger present or counting how many gifts go to whom by starting early and giving gifts of appreciation – to each family member. Take the whole month of December (or start at Thanksgiving) and every day have each person share something they appreciate about another (big brother allowing younger sister to hang out in his room). Make a running list and post on the fridge or in the family room to remind each other when stresses build that you really do care about and love each other.
Spread the joy around. The time-honored tradition of helping others can shift priorities. If kids or teens are moping around or showing signs of stress, take them to the local soup kitchen to serve meals. Visit a nursing home with hand-made cards. Helping others gives kids a feeling of more control and a sense of being both useful and appreciated.
Charlotte Reznick, PhD is a child educational psychologist, an associate clinical professor of psychology at UCLA, and author of a new book, The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success (Perigee/Penguin2009,www.ImageryForKids.com/book).