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Helping Kids Deal with Holiday Stress

While the picture of Kevin, from the movie Home Alone, shows a lighthearted view of a child’s holiday problems, holiday strass is a real and troublesome problem for some children. It’s called the most wonderful time of the year, the happiest season of all, and more. For many kids (and adults) it is, but for others, it only emphasizes what is missing in their life. We often take for granted that kids will be happy and look forward to holidays. As educators, we focus on building children up. But the reality for some children is that time at home, during a holiday, is not something they anticipate. Children, like adults, can struggle with a myriad of stressors and dysfunctional situations. The reality is, many homes are not the picture-perfect scene from a Hallmark card. The emphasis on family, love, harmony, togetherness and presents, may make some children acutely aware of what is missing in their home. Additionally, the shorter days and darker winter days cause some children to experience seasonal affective disorder. This is a very real condition for some children, due to decreased exposure to sunshine or natural light, and combined with holiday stress may be overwhelming.

What are some warning signs, that can signal those who work with kids that a student may be suffering?

  • Sadness, crying, irritability, acting out

  • Decreased appetite, or loss of interest in activities

  • Physical complaints (headache, stomachache)

  • Isolation

  • Change in work habits

  • Increased impulsivity

Children may be apprehensive of time at home for a variety of reasons. Some may not have adequate meals at home, many children go hungry on days when they are not at school. Some may have lost a loved one. Others may not have a warm and loving environment, maybe they are ignored, or maybe mom or dad is suffering and is unable to take care of the child’s needs. There may be dysfunctional family dynamics, alcoholism, or even abuse. Many children feel a lack of control due to issues like these. We often do not know the reality of what goes on in a child’s home, and mental health issues are very real in kids, just as in adults.

How can we help children deal with holidays that may be less than happy?

  • Be alert to the signs of anxiety and depression.

  • Do not make assumptions. Be aware that not everyone has a happy home life.

  • Focus on giving back – service – not receiving.

  • If a child is dealing with loss, help them express happy memories or acknowledge new things they may be able to look forward to.

  • Help them maintain secure routines and keep their environment calm. Calming music – not just Christmas vocals may help.

  • Do not over emphasis discussion of family gatherings and gift giving.

  • Encourage the child to help out in the classroom or school.

  • Encourage physical activity, especially at recess, or opportunities to be outdoors. Deep breathing may also be helpful.

  • If a child may experience hunger or poverty – there are numerous agencies you can contact to provide food and gifts – start with a local church if you need suggestions.

  • When/if it is appropriate (in a faith based setting) talk about the true meaning of the Christmas season.

As an educator, it is always difficult to watch children in pain or struggling with personal problems. While we can’t necessarily “fix” things, we can provide a safe and secure setting and encourage strengths and talents, by helping kids refocus on the things they have control over, encouraging a positive outlook and letting them know we believe in them. The safety and security they feel at school, combined with caring and compassionate educators may help pave the way to a brighter day.