For many, December will be filled with sugar-laden holiday parties, lengthy shopping trips and long lines for a chance to sit on Santa’s lap. For families that thrive on routine, holiday merriment can lead to schedule disruptions that throw a family’s rhythm into disarray. Maintaining the wellbeing of both parents and children during the season takes a bit of advanced planning.
“Children, just like adults, need both energetic time and rest time embedded throughout the day,” said psychologist Carolyn Lorente, Ph.D. of Northern Virginia Community College and Belle Point Wellness Center. “During the holidays, this natural rhythm can easily get disrupted.”
Keep the holidays in the proper perspective, and remember that the season is for a finite period of time and one’s normal routine will be restored, says therapist Carol Barnaby, LCSW-C. “The biggest stress that people often have is feeling that they are being judged by others if their children are having a hard time. I tell my patients to focus on the things that they can control, and remember other people have once been in their shoes.”
Providing opportunities for an emotional outlet can help with mood stabilization. “Make sure that [children] have enough outdoor play paired with quiet down time throughout their day,” said Lorente. “Model for them how to find a quiet space to retreat to when things start to heat up.”
When parents are able to exhibit a sense of tranquility during a period of chaos, children often mimic this emotional response. “Remain calm and stay patient,” added Joanne Bagshaw, PhD Professor of Psychology Montgomery College. “Emotions are contagious, and your ability to remain calm under pressure is great role modeling for young children and can help prevent strong emotions from escalating.”
When in new and unfamiliar social settings, some children need more time than others to adjust to the social demands, says Lorente. “Know your child,” she said. “Some will make these transitions quite easily while many will find this challenging. Remember that our first job is to teach. And children learn best by watching how we handle the stressors of the season.”
In fact, reflecting on a child’s temperament can serve as a guide for parents as they navigate the impact of a disputed schedule. “This is a time to go with what you know about your child,” said psychologist Stacie Isenberg Psy. D. “Some kids can push bedtime and sugar every so often, with little to no negative effects. If this describes your child, stay later than usual and enjoy the special occasion. If this is not your child, you and your child are likely to become miserable by pushing the limits that night and very likely the next day or maybe two,”
Returning to normalcy as often as possible can preserve a family’s wellbeing during the holiday season, suggests Jerome Short, Ph.D., professor of psychology at George Mason University. “Maintain household routines leading up to holiday events, such as regular meal, play, and bed times for children,” he said. “Plenty of sleep, including naps, helps children with their attention spans, mood regulation, and self-control of their behaviors,”
“Put limits around bedtime and sugar consumption that match your child's physiological and emotional abilities and you'll all have the best experience,” added Isenberg.
Nutrition plays a role in mood and behavior, especially during the holidays. “Keep some protein-heavy snacks handy, like cheese sticks, or nuts if your child doesn’t have allergies,” said Bagshaw. “Snacks filled with protein can help stabilize blood sugar, and young children’s moods.”
Explaining to a child what they can expect at holiday event can mitigate meltdowns. “Make a plan with your partner and set realistic expectations on how long you will stay at events,” said Barnaby. “This is often the best thing couples can do to manage stress and frustration that leads to conflict. Take turns in managing the children so that each of you can have some fun.”