Children Feel Holiday Stress Just Like Adults

After being informed her child was troubled, the mother sat across from Anita Landau Hurtig with just one basic question:

“What do you mean she’s troubled? I’m the one with all the troubles.”

Just the point, say pediatric psychologists such as Hurtig. Children are going to pick up on their parents’ stress levels, and the keen observation will likely manifest itself in physical traits such as sleep problems, queasy stomachs and even headaches.

That goes double for the holidays.

“Americans have made the (Hanukkah and Christmas) holidays into the most stressful time of the year,” says Hurtig, who is a clinical professor and psychotherapist in the pediatrics department at the University of Illinois-Chicago College of Medicine. “We stretch beyond limits, making greater demands in terms of both economics and time commitments.”

Children understand the frenzy, adding their own touch.

“Kids are bombarded with messages from television commercials about what they ‘need’ to receive this year for holiday gifts,” Hurtig says. “It only serves to make them more overeager and anxious.”

All this can lead to an increased level of stress, which can compromise the immune system and lead to more colds and flu.

Turning off the TV is one effective strategy for curbing children’s holiday stress. Instead, devise physical activities to do for family entertainment.

“The key is make it fun,” says Sheryl Marks Brown, executive director of the American Council on Exercise. “Maybe you can take a walk, sled, play games, dance to music or rent an exercise video everyone can do.” The occasional exercise session this month can pay dividends in releasing tension, says Dr. Stephen Carroll, a general practitioner and co-author of “The Complete Family Guide to Healthy Living” (Dorling Kindersley, $14.95).

“Our bodies are designed to respond physically rather than mentally to a stressful situation,” says Carroll. “While kids’ bodies are different in many ways, the stress response is similar.

“Even if the stressor is emotional (such as wanting more toys or fretting about whether the Christmas tree is smaller than one at a friend’s home), the same physiological reactions emerge. The heart beats faster, the muscles tense and the skin sweats.”

A major challenge is balancing reality with a child’s expectations about the holidays. While schoolmates may have big family celebrations, the only son of a single mother may feel a bit deflated about smaller gatherings at his house. “(Children) need help from parents to understand matters,” says Hurtig. “That can be a problem because some adults tend to lose their own grip on reality during the holidays.”

Hurtig has some suggestions:

Smaller families can link up with other friends to spread the holiday cheer and expand the sense of community.

Watch for signs of stress and insecurity in children, such as clinging more than normal to parents, frowning a lot and decreased interest in playing with other children.

Most important, Hurtig recommends taking a fresh approach to the holiday season.

“It’s very important for parents, including single parents, to recognize gifts are just objects,” she says. “Instead of taking so much time to gather more and more gifts, maybe it would be better to spend the time really connecting with your kids (such as planning a special holiday outing or baking cookies together). They will end up feeling more loved.”

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