The holiday season is wonderful, but it is also a challenging time for many, including many children. While this time of year is joyful and exciting and can be a wonderful celebration of family and community, it can also be overwhelming for many kids, even those in the warmest of households.
Below are some of the things that can challenge your child’s equilibrium, and strategies to help bring them back into balance. Remember also that children are very sensitive to the emotional state of the adults around them, so if you struggle yourself with sadness, anxiety, financial stress or any other challenge this time of year, pay attention to how your child is doing and find ways to offer reassurance, connection and joyful play.
1. Over Stimulation
Holiday lights, music, bells, noisy toys and especially holiday crowds can all be a bit much for children with sensitive nervous systems. All kids tend to get overwhelmed by stimulation at some point, and some are much more reactive to it than others. Overstimulation can manifest in many ways, including tantrums, crying, emotional volatility, withdrawal, and anger. An overwhelmed child often leads to a quickly overwhelmed and frustrated adult, which makes this situation even more challenging (especially since you’re likely to be a bit overstimulated yourself!)
How You Can Help: When a child’s nervous system is overwhelmed, you won’t be able to reason them out of their reaction with conversation or rational thoughts. Your best plan of action here is to pay close attention to how your child is doing in situations with lots of sensory stimulation, and lovingly remove her to a calm place when her energy starts to become fragmented or scattered. Wherever you go, scout out a quiet spot to retreat to before things get crazy, so you are prepared in advance.
Building in quiet time to rest and check in with your child throughout the day will help a lot, even if it’s just a few minutes every hour or two. If you’re traveling to see friends or relatives, and your child enjoys a yoga practice, consider bringing her yoga mat along. It can serve as a safe retreat space to rest in child’s pose or sit with a glitter jar for a few minutes if needed.
Finally, the breath is very powerful, and spending a few moments with your child, practicing Heart and Belly Breath, or Back to Back Breathing can do wonders for soothing her nervous system. If your child is very small, try letting her sit in your lap and breathe together, so she can be comforted by the sound and sensation of your breath as well as her own.
2. A Little To Much Closeness
Holiday time often can come with a lot of unwanted touch from friends, relatives and even strangers. We’ve all seen pictures of hysterical children sitting on the lap of a stranger in a Santa suit! It’s natural that family members and friends who haven’t seen your child in some time will want to hug and kiss her, but many kids are quickly “touched out” and feel uncomfortable and invaded by all that up close love. For young kids, they may not even recognize some of the people doing the hugging, and even older children often don’t feel as familiar and comfortable with relatives as those adults feel with them.
How You Can Help: This is a sensitive subject for many families, but children begin to learn early about personal boundaries and their right to say no to unwanted touch. (Read more about this in CNN article “I Don't Own My Child's Body“). Every person should feel empowered to say who can touch them and when (and decide when they want to touch someone else), but if not hugging someone is accompanied by a sense of guilt or shame, or if your child feels like she is disappointing you by not hugging someone you want her to hug, she may quickly learn to override her own feelings about being touched in order to make others happy and keep things agreeable. Alternately, your child could become resentful or even aggressive, and not want to spend time with the people who love her, all over something that is easily avoided.
For some kids, it can help to show them photos of people that they haven’t seen in a while, and talk to them about who those people are in relation to them. Tell your child how excited people will be to see him, and answer any questions he has. You can even say things like “Aunt Ally might want to give you a hug when we get to her house. Do you think that would work for you?” and then discuss options if hugging doesn't feel right. For some children, especially the youngest ones, it can help if you warmly hug someone first, before your child does any greeting, so they can gauge your comfort level and use it to help set their own.
You know your child, and if you know that he is likely to feel uncomfortable with close physical contact coming into a social situation, talk with him about a plan in advance. You can suggest offering relatives waves, high fives or fist bumps instead of hugs, and develop a signal that he could use to let you know he’s feeling uncomfortable and needs you to step in.
In a situation where you do need to step in, a simple but clear statement such as “Paul is offering high fives instead of hugs today” or “Paul is just saying hello now but might want to give out hugs later” should get other adults on board.
If you have certain relatives that you feel won’t respond to a statement like that in the moment, consider calling them in advance to let them know the plan, and be prepared to scoop your child up or take their hand and lead them away if it’s really needed.
Even if you have a child who is usually affectionate, the overwhelm of the holidays can make any kid less comfortable. It’s important that you stay tuned in to your child’s emotional state during transitions and entrances into new groups of people, and be ready to come to his aid if he seems to be struggling.
None of these thoughts are meant to suggest that you discourage your child from being affectionate, but everyone will benefit from affection that is spontaneous and heartfelt, rather than forced. Adults who love your child can learn to appreciate that you are teaching him to honor his intincts and develop a healthy understanding of boundaries and consent. If a situation comes up where an adult is upset with your child for not hugging, letting your child know that you understand, and that you aren’t angry with him about this, is very important. Reinforce that it’s always ok to need a little personal space, and that even people who love each other very much sometimes need that space.
3. Changes in Routine
While children may be excited to have a break from school, and the whole family might look forward to travel or just time home together, changes in routine can be hard for kids. The routines give a sense of predictability and rhythm to the day, which allows children to settle in and feel comfortable knowing what is coming next for them. The changes in routine that come with the holidays can be fun, but also can make kids edgy, anxious, uncomfortable and exhausted.
How You Can Help: You can support your child by considering his needs (especially the needs for sleep and healthy food!) in advance of starting each day, and by filling him in on what is about to happen. As adults we plan our own days, so we take for granted the ability to mentally prepare for what is coming. Give your child a heads up on how the day will unfold, so that he isn’t anxious about what’s coming or feeling disoriented. Some children will even benefit from a written (or drawn with stick figures) plan for the day. Others enjoy a short guided visualization that takes them through the major events of the day to come. If you think plans might change during the day, and you have a child that gets very attached to the plan, let them know that if things need to change, you'll tell them right away and understand if it's hard on them.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have free time! If open ended space for relaxation and creative play is part of your plan, that is fantastic. You don’t need to micro-plan your child’s time, just include the open space in the plan for the day that you share with him. And if your child is a bit older, don’t forget to ask if there is anything that he would like to make time for during the day, and do your best to respect that request.
Finally, changes in routine can make it harder for your child to fall asleep at night. Recognize this, and plan on spending a little extra time winding down with him if needed. You can also try using a guided relaxation to fall asleep, and encouraging him to practice it on his own if he wakes up in the night.
Honoring your little ones as full members of your family and community means recognizing and responding to their needs, even when those needs don't fit right in with the planned festivites. This is so tricky, but doing so can contribute to a holiday season that truly nourishes the soul of your family. Wishing you all a season of peace.