The holiday season is often accompanied by stress, which can be particularly difficult for children and adolescents with elevated anxiety. Here are some tips about how parents can help.
- Maintain Structure. Late nights, holiday treats, and unscheduled days are what many children love most about the holiday season. At the same time, sufficient sleep, staying active, and a healthy diet set the foundation for adaptive coping. We are all more at-risk of feeling overwhelmed when tired, hungry, or sick! Encourage your child to enjoy the freedoms of their holiday break in moderation. Maintaining a (mostly) consistent bed-time and wake-time (ideally within 1-2 hours of when they need to go to sleep and wake up for school) will ease your child’s transition back to school, and ensure they are well rested during the break. Encouraging your child to eat complete meals, in addition to holiday sweets, provides them with the energy to take full advantage of their free time. Additionally, having a daily routine can help your child know what to expect, and lessen overall anxiety.
- Cope ahead. If your child experiences elevated anxiety that causes significant distress, they may benefit from working with a cognitive-behavioral therapist to learn how to identify and effectively cope with anxiety. If your child is already working with a therapist, collaborate with them on ways you can best support your child in generalizing skills learned in therapy to anxiety-provoking situations that arise during the holidays. This may involve developing a cope ahead plan, which includes identifying situations that induce anxiety (e.g., family gatherings, parties, sleepovers, etc.) and selecting coping skills to help your child approach rather than avoid these difficult situations.
- The same strategies that apply to supporting your anxious child during the school year also apply during holiday breaks.
Below are tips on how to CARE for a child with anxiety (Swan, Kagan, Frank, Crawford & Kendall, 2016).
- Coping model: Children learn from parents, which means you play a key role in modeling for your child how to manage anxiety effectively. Notice your own reactions to holiday stress, and put the proverbial airplane oxygen mask on yourself first. Being a coping model is not about being ever calm and anxiety-free (good luck!); rather, it is about noticing your own anxiety, and modeling how to skillfully manage. Everyone experiences anxiety, we just don’t want anxiety to keep us from doing what we want or need to do.
- Accommodate less. Accommodating anxiety (helping your child avoid situations that cause distress) alleviates anxiety short-term, but maintains anxiety over time. In collaboration with your child’s therapist, work to gradually reduce current accommodations. Try not to anticipate that your child will be anxious and give them an out. Instead, support them in coping with (rather than avoiding) anxiety during the holidays, so that they become more comfortable with practice.
- Reinforce brave behavior. Exposures are a key component of cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety, and involve children gradually engaging in situations that cause anxiety in the context of a supportive, therapeutic environment. If your child is working with a therapist, collaborate on how they can practice being brave over the break, and provide reinforcement. Without the competing demands of school, the holidays present a golden opportunity for at-home exposure practice! Reinforcement can be social (praise), tangible (stickers, rewards), or activity-driven (extra screen time, picking the family movie). In general, notice and reinforce when your child bravely engages in situations that make them nervous.
- Empathize and validate. While we recommend against parents accommodating their child’s anxiety, we also do not want parents to become frustrated or punitive when their child expresses feeling scared, frightened, or nervous. It is completely natural to want to avoid situations that cause anxiety. Telling your child “just do it” or “don’t be nervous” is unlikely to help. Instead, express to your child that you understand how they are feeling, empathize with them, and encourage them to do it anyway. If “it” seems too hard, work together to find one small step your child can take to practice.
The holidays can be stressful for parents and children. Supporting your child by maintaining structure, coping ahead, and reinforcing brave behavior can help!
Anna J. Swan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. She sees patients for evaluations, individual cognitive-behavioral therapy, and group therapy as part of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Service at the Manhattan and New Jersey locations of the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.