American College - Center for Special Needs

Anxiety and the Holidays: How to Help Kids Cope

The holiday season is here, along with the colorful decorations, gifts, foods, and activities that most kids find exciting. However, children with anxiety, OCD, PANS/PANDAS or sensory processing issues may find the holidays challenging. They may look forward to the season, only to be disappointed when they find themselves overwhelmed with the rush of the holidays. How can parents help children cope, so that everyone in the family can enjoy the celebration?

BY Kara Jolliff Gould, Ph.D. | December 2021 | Category: Family, Community + The Holidays

Anxiety and the Holidays: How to Help Kids Cope

First, it is helpful to remember that many children need a daily routine to feel safe and secure. Holiday activities can disrupt the daily routine and can evoke feelings of anxiety and lack of control. Letting kids know what to expect in advance can help. Parent Marcy Stoner Nelson suggests keeping the child’s regular bedtime consistent whenever possible.

Next, to cope with potential sensory overload during holiday gatherings, Nelson also suggests preparing an “escape route” for your child, such as headphones and a table in a quiet room, to provide the option to take a break from noisy gatherings. After a few minutes, the child may feel ready to join the group again. Even if that’s not the case, such a retreat can prevent the “meltdowns” that sensory overload can cause.

For parent Ashley Collins, the biggest challenge as a parent of an anxious child during the holidays is the food. “We always bring what we know she will eat, and her go-to snacks. She often feels pressured to try something her relatives make, which causes her more stress, so we offer her reassurance by letting her know it’s okay if she doesn’t eat what is offered.”

Collins also has a tip for maximizing fun when taking a child to visit relatives and interact with cousins: careful planning. “Having games she can play successfully with very little to no help from my husband and [me], or her brother, allows her to interact with her cousins without feeling babied. It truly boils down to planning and prepping. We can’t foresee every issue, but we plan ahead. We prep her before we leave, while en route, when we get there, and check on her throughout the visit.” 

Telling relatives and friends in advance about your child’s anxieties surrounding new foods, noisy gatherings and/or new situations is important to Sydney Halcumb: “I suggest making sure your relatives are aware of triggers and behaviors that could occur. You don’t want someone getting onto your child for something they can’t help! My daughter always finds that very embarrassing and stressful.”

Parents of children who don’t have sensory issues or anxiety may need an explanation as to why pressuring your child to eat certain things or play certain games will not help. Friends and relatives need to be prepared not to be offended if your child isn’t able to try every food offered, for example, or participate in every activity.

Halcumb agrees that “a private places to regulate and decompress” is helpful. “My daughter also likes to pack an ‘emergency bag’ with coping tools, such as fidget toys, essential oils, etc.,” she explained. 

Ways to Help Anxious Children Enjoy the Holidays 

  1. Let kids know in advance what will be happening and explain ways they can opt out or take a break if necessary.
  2. Listen to kids’ concerns in advance and offer choices when possible.
  3. Provide familiar foods, even when traveling or visiting others for dinner or treats.
  4. Make friends and family aware of possible triggers and reactions that could occur. Other adults may try to treat triggered behaviors as discipline problems if they are unaware of the child’s anxiety.
  5. Maintain routines as consistently as possible, especially at bedtime. Be prepared to leave gatherings early when needed. 

Most important, be flexible, and manage your own expectations for the holiday. With family support, ample preparation, and options for taking breaks, children with anxiety can enjoy holiday festivities more. As Halcumb recalled her family’s recent Thanksgiving experience with her daughter, she noted, “My best advice is don’t have your heart set on a `perfect day,’ and be prepared to ride the waves. You can’t predict what PANS/ PANDAS, anxiety, or OCD will cause – but you can be prepared to face it. For us, that looked like being prepared to stay home if we needed to, being prepared to leave early if the crowd got overwhelming. Her mental stability comes before the holiday festivities.”  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Kara Jolliff Gould, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Journalism, School of Journalism and Strategic Media, University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, AR 

Read the article here.