Health Matters Blog

Strategies for Managing Family Stress During Holidays

By Cynthia Howes

Children’s health practitioners spend a great deal of time working with families on creating routines that ensure children and their families are getting enough rest, eating healthy foods and staying active. These patterns are the key elements for children of all ages, from infant to adolescent, to be physically and emotionally healthy.

Cynthia Howes, RN, CPNP

Cynthia Howes, RN, CPNP

Often, holidays are a time when regular patterns are disrupted. Family gatherings, Christmas concerts, and preparations for the holidays are just a few examples of seasonal events that throw our routines off from the norm. When these events require family members to do additional tasks (baking, cooking, shopping, driving, etc.) feeling stressed is a natural response from both adults and children.

It’s important for parents to remember to set a good example being calm. It’s hard to be patient when you’re not calm. Children of all ages pick up on their parent’s emotions and may act out in response. Children may display a general increase in irritability that presents as a temper tantrum or change in behavior. Temper tantrums or irritability may be a sign that your child is feeling your stress and it can become a real downward spiral if the adults can’t take control of their own emotions.

We often make suggestions to families about how they can manage their stress. By establishing some simple routines and patterns that conform to these holiday activities, the anxiety and exhaustion brought on by the demands of the season can be avoided.

Sleep routines can easily be challenged during this time of year. Special events and family visits affect bed time routines which then affect how we wake up in the morning. All of the fun and excitement of celebrating means we’re exerting ourselves more than normal. It is wise to try to schedule some quiet time the day after a big event to help re-energize, or perhaps enjoy an outdoor activity that has nothing to do with holiday excitement.

Staying physically active can be a challenge in our winter climate. Getting outdoors and enjoying the fresh air doesn’t have to involve activities any more intense than going for a walk, going sledding, making snow angels, or building a snowman. Scheduling family fun time will reinvigorate everyone’s ability to tackle holiday obligations and stress.

Eating is an area where parents can really help children develop healthy lifestyle patterns. The fuel from cookies, candy and other holiday foods burns off quickly and hunger sets right in again. Adults can model healthy behavior for their children. Choosing to just have smaller tastes of delicious treats while also having regular portions of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods that provide the sustaining energy needed to get through a busy schedule lends itself to healthier long term choices. Demonstrating healthy patterns and choices sets the example for children to follow.

Parents also need to be aware of external pressures on their children from media and friends at holidays. The commercial element of the season can create anxiety in a child if they’re comparing gifts with their peers, or hearing on television about particular presents as the most popular of the year. (This can cause anxiety for parents, too, if they feel like they must fulfill every wish on their child’s Christmas list.) Older children can be encouraged to volunteer their time with their church or a community organization or just figure out a way to do something nice for a neighbor. This helps them understand that the season is a time for giving and not just getting.

These are just a few examples of ideas for decreasing stress and managing routines. Ultimately, the key to making any strategy work is readiness on everyone’s part to give it a try. Make a point to bring up ideas at the dinner table and invite everyone to make suggestions. The best choices you’ll make for having a less stressed holiday are the ones you’ll make together as a family.

Cynthia Howes, RN, CPNP, is a pediatric nurse practitioner with Just So Pediatrics, a member of BMH Physician Group. She can be reached at 802-254-2253.

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