For most children, the holidays are happy, fun and exciting times. There's a break from school and a chance to see friends and relatives. There may also be special food, music and family traditions. However, for some children, the holidays can also be stressful and confusing. Family plans and celebrations may be complicated by divorce, separation or remarriage. The holidays can also be a difficult time for children who have lost a parent, sibling or close relative. This year, many children are also separated from parents due to ongoing military service.
The holidays often remind children of what's changed and what's now different. For example, a child from a divorced family may feel sad on some level because he misses the "intact" family he used to have. A child whose parent is on active military duty may feel it's particularly unfair that her daddy or mommy needs to be away over the holidays.
There are a number of things parents can do to help children cope with holiday stress. These include:
- Discuss holiday plans well in advance, and let kids participate in decisions to the extent possible. Kids need some degree of predictability. Prolonged uncertainty, constantly changing plans or last-minute decisions can all increase stress.
Most kids, even those dealing with loss or family transitions, can and do enjoy the holidays. However, preparation, patience and honesty can help prevent conflict, reduce stress and enhance the holiday season for the whole family.
Dr. Fassler is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Burlington, Vt. He is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy for the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families.